WASHINGTON D.C.—One would expect the steps of the Supreme Court to be vacant before the sun rises. But today was not a typical day. Today was the day Justice Antonin Scalia called the Voting Rights Act “a perpetuation of a racial entitlement.”
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, a case challenging the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and for those hoping to nab one of the 50 seats open to the general public, waking at 3 a.m seemed a welcomed feat.
Under Section 5 of the law, nine states in the South, as well as Alaska and Arizona, alongside counties and cities in other states, must get permission from the Justice Department or a federal court for any change in voting procedures that they seek to make.
Spectators hailed from various pockets of the country and brought with them energy they described as teetering back and forth between nervousness and excitement.
“Because I’m interning for the semester, I decided to come out and see a landmark case," said Jessi Ballard, a student at the University of Mississippi. She told Campus Progress she arrived on the high court's steps at 4:30 a.m. because of the possible impact the case could have on her home state.
Another college student—Kyle Gilman from the University of Wyoming—wanted to take advantage of his time in the nation’s capital and his proximity to the Supreme Court. “I’m interning in Congress, and I thought that while I’m out here, I should see some oral arguments, especially relating to voting rights, which are a very mainstream topic right now,” he said.
Others had much further to travel, including Bobby Pierson and Kenneth Dukes, ACLU plaintiffs from Shelby County, Ala. Dukes said that he wished to make it known that many people from Shelby County support Section Five of the Voting Rights Act.
“There’s a few—the powers that be—in the county that brought this situation on because they say [Section 5] inconvenienced them. It inconvenienced them to treat people fairly; it inconvenienced them to give people a fair opportunity to vote. So we wanted to let them know that it’s not based on convenience, it’s based on what’s right,” Dukes said.
People in line indicated their awareness of the widespread impact that this case could have. Noah Rich, a law student at Georgetown University and incoming editor-in-chief of the Journal of Law and Modern Critical Race Perspectives, endured the cold morning because of his interest in racial issues and his understanding of the importance of the case.
“The Roberts Court here has a chance to do what it has so far been afraid to do. They’ve been a very activist court, much like the Rehnquist, in overturning a lot of cases quietly, but they’ve yet to decide anything quite as starkly against tradition as they would here. [The Voting Rights Act] has been a part of American life, American politics, American culture … and I’m interested to how it’s going to turn out.”
Despite actions of some Justices that might indicate a desire to invalidate Section 5, Pierson remained hopeful that the Supreme Court would uphold Section 5 of the act.
“I don’t think that the Justices will side with Shelby County because I don’t think anyone on the present Supreme Court wants something as monumental as this to happen on their watch.”
But when asked what impact a ruling in favor of Shelby County would have, Pierson simply laughed and responded, “I don’t know.”
The Supreme Court is expected to have a decision in early June.