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How Eric Holder views the latest Supreme Court challenge to the Voting Rights Act

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Is the Supreme Court poised to deliver another blow to the landmark Voting Rights Act? The court has done so more than once in this last decade. Yesterday, justices heard arguments in a case that could weaken the act once again. At issue, an Alabama congressional redistricting plan drawn by that state's Republican-controlled state legislature in which only 1 of 7 districts is majority Black even though more than a quarter of Alabama's population is African American.

With me to discuss is Eric Holder. Attorney general under President Obama, he's now chair of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which supports the plaintiff in this Alabama case. Welcome.

ERIC HOLDER: Well, thanks for having me.

KELLY: The Voting Rights Act, as you well know, was designed to protect racial minorities from discrimination in voting - Section 2 of that act. A lower court has already ruled this Alabama map violates the act because it dilutes the power of Black voters. You think it does.

HOLDER: Oh, absolutely. I mean, and I think it's very significant that that three-judge panel included two Trump-appointed judges that said that the map drawn by the Alabama Republican legislature violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because it failed to provide Black voters in the state the opportunity to participate equally in the political process and to be represented accordingly. This is a textbook - a textbook example of a violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

And I think very, very importantly, you know, in dissent - the Supreme Court took the case, and in dissent, Chief Justice Roberts wrote - and I quote - "the district court properly applied existing law." And then he added - and again, I quote - "an extensive opinion with no apparent errors for our correction." This is a case that is, as Justice Kagan said in oral argument yesterday, a slam dunk.

KELLY: So...

HOLDER: And the only question is whether or not the Supreme Court is prepared to, in essence, redo, undo further harm the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

KELLY: Let's lay out the gist of the argument that Alabama is making in court 'cause I want to let you respond. The state solicitor general, Edmund LaCour, says that the law, the Voting Rights Act, was meant to cover only intentional discrimination. He argues Alabama is not intentionally discriminating here. On the contrary, it is taking a race-neutral approach to redistricting. What do you think?

HOLDER: Well, first, that states the law in an inappropriate way. It's not a question of intent. It really is a question of effects. What is the impact of what the state legislature did? And I think it's also interesting that this nonracial approach that they are taking has a disproportionate negative impact on people of color in Alabama. Alabama is a state where you could draw districts - two districts where African American citizens would have the opportunity to pick who they wanted to have represent them. There is - there are sufficient numbers of African Americans in Alabama. They are geographically compact so that you could draw two districts there instead of the one in which they have all been placed quite easily and have districts that look like normal, regular districts.

KELLY: What about - he went on to argue - this is still Edmund LaCour, the state solicitor general - that the bigger, broader goal of the Voting Rights Act was to transform us to a society no longer fixated on race. He said the plaintiffs - and you're backing them - would transform that statute into one that, quote, "requires racial discrimination in districting." And the goal is, of course, to take us to a political system in which race no longer matters. That seemed to be an argument that maybe some of the conservative justices might be considering.

HOLDER: Yeah, except it flies in the face of that which they are confronted. They - again, this, quote-unquote, "race-neutral approach" has resulted in the disenfranchisement of the African American community in Alabama. You know, so they say they want to do things in a race-neutral way. Well, their race-neutral way has a very race-negative impact. And that is just a fact. I mean, just look at these statistics. You know, 27% of the population, only about 14% of the congressional representation. You know, this notion of, you know, high-handed arguments about trying to do things in a race-neutral way while ignoring the racial impacts of their approach is hypocritical.

KELLY: This question of intent came up over and over yesterday. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson weighed in and spoke to the history of the 14th and 15th Amendments, which, as you know, were enacted after the Civil War to guarantee political power to formerly enslaved people. Here's what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KETANJI BROWN JACKSON: I don't think that the historical record establishes that the founders believed that race neutrality or race blindness was required.

KELLY: Eric Holder, what do you make of that reasoning?

HOLDER: The rookie got it exactly right. You know, with all due respect to - I shouldn't have said that, but I mean, the newest justice got it exactly right. The post-Civil War amendments are infused with the desire to make fair for the newly enfranchised, newly freed American citizens to fully participate in our democracy. The statutes that we're talking about, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, is based, in fact, on the 14th Amendment, which is a post-Civil War amendment. And so I think her analysis is spot on.

KELLY: So let's broaden this beyond Alabama. What do you see as the potential effects of this case on voting rights across the U.S.? Because there are related fights underway in Ohio, Wisconsin, I could go on.

HOLDER: Yeah. I mean, a negative decision in this case will absolutely result in fewer voting protections around the country, less representation in Congress for communities of color around the country. It will allow politicians to draw and then to enforce even more extreme gerrymanders to prevent voters from having the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice. People should understand that if you extrapolate from this case, it will have impacts far beyond just African American citizens in Alabama.

KELLY: And what about the impact on the Voting Rights Act? Can it survive another body blow? This was a case - a point that Justice Kagan was making yesterday.

HOLDER: And that's a very legitimate question. After the Shelby County decision in 2013 that essentially took away from the justice...

KELLY: That has your name on it, we should mention. This was Shelby County, Ala., v. Holder.

HOLDER: Yeah, I just call it the Shelby County case. But the (inaudible) of the Shelby County case took away the preclearance capability or capacity of the Justice Department. That really gutted in a substantial way the impact - the power of the Voting Rights Act. And we relied then to say, all right, well, you still have Section 2. If you now take that away, the Voting Rights Act will essentially be hollowed out and will really mean - make more important congressional action to put in place a new Voting Rights Act.

KELLY: We just have a minute or so left. If the court rules in Alabama's favor - not the outcome you want, I know - but where do you take the fight from here?

HOLDER: It'll be difficult. You know, we'll have to - all things are about elections in the United States of America, and it means getting more people to the polls in as many ways as you possibly can. But at some point, you can only do so much against structural things that are upheld by the courts, whether they be racial or partisan gerrymanders. Those things at some point are ultimately hard to to outvote, hard to out-organize. You know, but we'll find ways. You know, other generations of Americans have faced difficulties and always found a way to protect our democracy. I suspect we'll be able to do so as well.

KELLY: Eric Holder was attorney general of the United States from 2009 to 2015, the first African American to hold that office. Eric Holder, thank you.

HOLDER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
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