Hat tip: SCOTUS blog
Posted: 26 Feb 2010
The following essay for our Race and the Supreme Court program is by Debo P. Adegbile, the Director of Litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. Last term in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. One v. Holder, he argued in defense of the federal preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in a constitutional challenge before the Supreme Court.
Our Constitution, properly understood, calls for a conversation between the branches of our government about the appropriate mechanisms for enforcement of the civil rights of African Americans and other minorities. Indeed, the Reconstruction Amendments explicitly carve out a role for Congress to interpret the Constitution’s equality principles. Section Five of the Fourteenth Amendment explicitly tasks Congress with the duty “to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.” This means that the Supreme Court is not the sole branch of government with an affirmative duty to determine what the Constitution means.
Congress’s use of this enforcement authority launched a vital phase of our national struggle to build a more perfect union. By the latter half of the twentieth century, Congressional exercise of its Fourteenth Amendment enforcement powers received the full blessing of a unanimous Court. In Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer, a decision upholding Congress’s Fourteenth Amendment power to abrogate the States’ sovereign immunity through Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Court summarized its understanding of Congressional enforcement powers as follows: “There can be no doubt that this [Court] has sanctioned intrusions by Congress, acting under the Civil War Amendments, into the judicial, executive, and legislative spheres of autonomy previously reserved to the States.”