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Locals react to court’s decision to strike down part of Voting Rights Act

NATCHEZ — The U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision Tuesday to strike down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act garnered mixed feelings from local officials and activists.

The court ruled that Section 4 of the landmark Voting Rights Act cannot be enforced unless Congress comes up with an up-to-date formula for deciding which states and localities still need federal monitoring. Mississippi is one of nine states, mostly in the South, that was subjected to federal oversight.

Section 4 determines which states must receive pre-clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice for legislative changes that would affect voting, such as redistricting, annexation, polling place relocations, special elections and other aspects of voting.

The court did not strike down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which outlines the pre-clearance requirement itself. But without Section 4 outlining which states are subject to pre-clearance, Section 5 is seemingly without significance.

The justices said in 5-4 vote that the law Congress most recently renewed in 2006 relies on 40-year-old data that does not reflect racial progress and changes in U.S. society.

It is currently unclear what the court’s opinion could mean for the City of Natchez’s redistricting plan, which was denied pre-clearance approval from the U.S. Department of Justice in April.

Former city attorney Walter Brown said it is his interpretation of the opinion that anything pending under Section 4 of the act — such as the city’s redistricting plan — would still need to be approved by the justice department.

Brown said he believes the court could issue a supplemental opinion addressing that issue, and he said the city should consult the state’s attorney general before proceeding with redistricting.

As for future redistricting plans, Mayor Butch Brown said the city would need to get a handle on what the ruling means for the city then go forward.

“There’s not enough water under the bridge yet,” he said. “The redistricting proposals were done prior to my coming into office, and there has been no activity from any member of the board to move forward on that.”

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis, who voted against the city’s proposed redistricting plan in 2011, said she would need to consult with City Attorney Hyde Carby and the justice department before forming an opinion about the court’s ruling.

Carby told the board of aldermen at its Tuesday meeting that his first inclination is that the city will not have to send its redistricting plan to the justice department for pre-clearance.

“But upon further study, we could make another determination about that,” he said after the meeting.

Mathis asked that Carby carefully review the opinion, as she did not agree with his initial assessment of it.

Former mayor and civil rights activist Phillip West called the court’s decision “sad.”

“It’s just an attempt to go back to a situation where all citizens are not represented in a fair manner or have equal access to the democratic process,” West said.

The Voting Rights Act, West said, is one of the most important pieces of legislation in this country’s history.

“Without it, there would have been no African-Americans elected in the city of Natchez or the county of Adams,” West said.

The Voting Rights Act, West said, has made America’s democratic processes better for everyone, not just minorities.

“Now there’s an issue of taking us back as opposed to keeping us moving forward,” he said.

Walter Brown said it is unfortunate that the justices were split 5-4 on the court’s ruling, but he said it might be time to move on.

The act, Brown said, has made the city, state and country better places.

“I believe we’re in a much better place now as far as protecting your right to vote, and I mean that for all people,” he said. “I regret that it was a 5-4 vote, but I think as a people, I think all of us in Natchez and Mississippi will do the right thing.”

Congress could pass a new bill for determining which states would be covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, but West said he believes that the justices know the chances of that are “slim to none.”