SCOTUS Dispatch: ‘Hush Fell’ Over Courtroom

Your Take: A civil rights lawyer's view of the scene as the high court heard a voting-rights case.

A protester holds a sign outside the Supreme Court. (Douglas Graham/Getty Images)

Debo Adegbile, special counsel for the LDF, argued for our clients from Shelby. He reminded the court that just a few years ago, state legislators in Alabama were caught on tape calling black voters “illiterates.” He drew the court’s attention to the crux of the case: the extensive record amassed by Congress demonstrating ongoing widespread voting discrimination in the jurisdictions covered by Section 5 of the act.

There were only two hush or gasp moments during the morning. A hush fell when Mrs. Cissy Marshall, widow of the late Supreme Court justice and LDF founder Thurgood Marshall, entered the courtroom a few minutes before the argument began. She sat quietly on one of the front benches. When members of the packed audience began to realize who she was, a slow stream of civil rights lawyers and activists made their way over to greet her.

The second moment was during the argument when Justice Antonin Scalia described the reauthorization of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act as “the perpetuation of racial entitlement.” It felt like a slap in the face, and there was a literal gasp from the audience.

After the argument, journalists immediately began predicting the death of the Voting Rights Act. We reminded them that the same predictions had been made after the oral argument in 2009. At one point a radio reporter asked me what the Legal Defense Fund would do if Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act were struck down.

“It’s not about what we’ll do,” I told her. “It’s about what America will do if we return to the days of unchecked voting discrimination. Every American should be asking themselves that question today, what will we do without Section 5.”

Sherrilyn A. Ifill is the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., which represented black voters from Shelby County, Ala., in the case.

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