Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee, On the 51st Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March

Today marks the 51st anniversary of Bloody Sunday.  Each year we commemorate the events of that fateful day, because it helped transform our Nation and proved to be a catalyst for the passage of the Voting Rights Act.  For the last two years, this commemoration has been a sad reminder of what five justices did to that cornerstone civil rights law.  In Shelby County v. Holder a narrow majority of the Court drove a stake through the heart of the Voting Rights Act when it struck down the coverage formula for its preclearance provision in Section 5.

Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the Federal government has the authority to examine and prevent racially discriminatory voting changes from going into effect before those changes disenfranchise voters in covered jurisdictions.  By striking down the coverage formula that determined which States and jurisdictions were subject to Federal review, the Court rendered Section 5 unenforceable.

Since then, Republican governors and state legislatures have exploited the Shelby County decision by implementing sweeping voter suppression laws that disproportionately prevent or discourage black Americans from voting.  This includes the State of Alabama, which not only enacted a burdensome photo identification law after the decision, but then made it even harder for many of its black citizens to obtain identification when the State closed more than 30 DMV offices in mostly poor and minority neighborhoods last October.  It is hard to fathom that in 2016 – well over 100 years after the Civil War and passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, and after transformative moments like Bloody Sunday – that states would continue to pass laws and take actions to undermine black Americans’ right to vote.

This past weekend, Congresswoman Terri Sewell, who represents the 7th District of Alabama – which includes Shelby County, Birmingham, and Selma – held a public forum in Birmingham to examine the harm caused by the Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision.  Several witnesses at that forum testified that the State had made it harder for their citizens to vote, and that a disproportionate number of those citizens were minorities.  They also spoke about the urgent need to restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act.  Congressman John Lewis, our great civil rights hero, was in attendance, and it is heartbreaking to realize that so many of the gains that he was able to help secure through his civil rights activism are being undone today.

Despite the compelling testimony about the urgent need for Congress to address voting rights, most Republicans in Congress continue to disregard the urgency of this issue.  More than two and a half years since the Shelby County decision, and despite the introduction of two separate bipartisan bills that would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act, the Republican chairs of the Judiciary Committee from both houses of Congress refuse to even hold a hearing on this issue.  Instead, Republican leaders have only paid lip service to the issue, supporting the award of congressional medals for brave civil rights leaders.  That is not enough.

Recently, the Speaker of the House stated that he was supportive of one of the bipartisan voting rights restoration bills.  In the same statement he explained that nothing could be done because the Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee refuses to take up the bill or to have a hearing.  This is not leadership.  The American people expect more than talk.

This pattern of Republican obstruction reached unprecedented heights recently when a few Senate Republicans declared that they would not even hold a hearing for the next Supreme Court nominee even before the President has even announced a nominee

Republicans have apparently decided that rather than be transparent and hold public hearings and votes on the most significant issues of the day – including voting rights, comprehensive immigration reform, and the next Supreme Court nominee – they would simply shut down the process.  Instead they are making important and timely decisions affecting hundreds of millions of Americans behind closed doors.  It is not good for our democracy and it is not good for the American people.

We need hearings and a vote on the voting rights bills.  And we need a hearing and a vote on the next Supreme Court nominee.  We remember what became to be known as Bloody Sunday because the blood that was shed led to greater democratic participation and a more inclusive union.  What Republicans are doing now undermines the hard-fought legacy of Bloody Sunday and the Civil Rights Movement.  For the good of the Nation, I urge that Republican leaders in the Senate and the House change that shameful course. 

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