Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Virginia Constitution of 1902 and the Voting Rights Act

The Virginia Bar Association is a product of the Progressive era. Forward-thinking lawyers joined together to promote the highest ideals of the profession. Many of the same lawyers who were leaders in the Bar Association were also delegates to the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1901.

The Virginia Constitution of 1902 contained some remarkably progressive elements - for Virginia. It established the State Corporation Commission as an independent rate-setting entity for the railroads and public utilities. It incorporated an express Double Jeopardy clause.

It also sought to take the right to vote away from black Virginians. In this effort, the new constitution was a success. Black voting was suppressed for decades. At the distance of barely more than 100 years, it is troubling to think that the best and the brightest of Virginia's lawyers worked so carefully and intentionally to prevent black voters from voting.

The Twenty-Fourth Amendment was adopted in 1964, prohibiting the poll tax in federal elections. The Supreme Court did not rule until 1966, in a Virginia case, that the poll tax was illegal as a violation of Equal Protection in state elections. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court held in the Shelby County case that the premises of the Voting Rights Act could no longer support the imposition on certain states of the burden of pre-approval for all voting law changes. The commentary I have read is full of the view that racism remains a fact of life for millions of Americans.

There has been a reversal, however, between 1901 and the attitudes of the legal elite. I have never met a lawyer who would say in private the outrageous things that Virginia's best lawyers were saying proudly on the record in 1901. Black voter turnout exceeded white voter turnout for the first time in 2012. Whether the Chief Justice got it right or wrong in his conclusions, I agree that a fundamental change has taken place since 1902, that is not going to change back. There will not ever be another Virginia constitutional convention for the express purpose of keeping racial minorities from voting.

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