Sara Mayeux for Bunk History:
How past is the past? That quandary, among the definitional puzzles of the human condition, is also the crux of the voting rights battles currently rending statehouses and federal courts around the country. Election law is an intricate tangle of constitutional doctrine, federal statutes and regulations, state laws and procedures, and local practices. It’s among the most complicated of legal specialties. And yet the blockbuster voting rights cases that federal courts in North Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, and elsewhere have decided in recent years—one of which, Gill v. Whitford, the Supreme Court will hear on October 3—are not, fundamentally, technical legal disputes. Fundamentally they are philosophical fights about the burdens of history.
Consider Shelby County v. Holder, the 2013 Supreme Court decision that partially invalidated the Voting Rights Act. Congressman John Lewis implored the Court to save the Act in a powerful amicus brief. Quoting from Lewis’s memoir, the brief detailed the 1965 march across Selma’s Pettus Bridge, which ultimately impelled the Act’s passage, and in particular, the moment in the course of that march when an Alabama state trooper with a billy club cracked open the left side of the young John Lewis’s skull: “Bleeding badly and barely hanging onto consciousness,” Lewis “tried to stand up from the pavement only to find himself surrounded by women and children weeping, vomiting while ‘men on horses [moved] in all directions, purposely riding over the top of fallen people, bringing the animals’ hooves down on shoulders, stomachs, and legs.’”
Apparently unmoved by this image, a 5-4 majority of the Court joined the opinion of Chief Justice John Roberts, which depicted those men and horses not as still riding in the minds of those who saw them but rather as neatly suspended in a hermetically sealed “before” to which the present world had little connection. “History did not end in 1965,” Roberts insisted. “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”