Which brings us to South Carolina v. Holder and the aforementioned E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse in Washington, scene of so many of the most famous episodes in American legal history. On Monday, the lawyers delivered their opening statements to the three-judge panel (the use of the panel, and the venue in Washington, come from the language of the Voting Rights Act itself). And then the testimony began. The trial is expected to last all week, and, if Monday is any indication, it's likely to be a bumpy ride. Here is how the Associated Press covered the morning session of the hearing:
During morning testimony, state Sen. George "Chip"
Campsen III cited examples of fraud that he took into consideration while
drafting early versions of South Carolina's law. These included vote buying,
voter rolls indicating a woman who showed up at the polls had already voted,
and press reports of voters being registered in both South Carolina and North
But under questioning from Justice Department attorney Anna
Baldwin, Campsen, a Republican, said the examples he gave did not involve the
type of fraud that requiring photo identification would address.
"None of the examples you gave in your testimony
involved incidents of impersonation?" Baldwin asked.
"Correct," Campsen answered. He also said he could
not find cases of voter impersonation in South Carolina, but added that the
state lacks the tools to root them out.
At this point, you would think, a reasonable judge might have stopped the proceedings to ask of the witness: Did you folks down there ever consider spending the time and money to investigate the extent of voter fraud in your state before you decided to impose these new voting burdens upon hundreds of thousands of your fellow South Carolinians? And perhaps that's a question someone will answer as the week goes on. In the meantime, the practical impact of the new law is as plain today as it was a century ago. James Rosen and Rebecca Cohen at McClatchy, in their report, offered this exchange:
Campsen, the South Carolina state senator who authorized the law, testified for more than 4 1/2 hours, enduring 90 minutes of tough grilling from Garrard Beeney, a New York lawyer representing national interest groups that have intervened in the case against South Carolina. Among the groups are the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union.
In one charged exchange, Beeney ridiculed the claim that blacks without acceptable photo identification would be protected by provisions in the South Carolina law allowing them to sign an affidavit and cast a provisional ballot.
Campsen acknowledged that affidavits must be notarized under separate state law and that notaries charge for their services.
"If you walk in (to a voting precinct) and you have to pay a notary, you don't think that's a poll tax?" Beeney asked in reference to one of the most odious of former Jim Crow laws.
"I don't think they (notaries) would charge," Campsen responded. "I don't think it will be administered that way."
It was precisely this sort of ambiguity in the administration of the new law which convinced the Justice Department to block it. And it is precisely this sort of bureaucratic nuance which allowed Southern states for generations to harass black citizens over the right to vote. Before, the fight was over voter registration. Now, the fight is over whether registered voters may cast a ballot. It's a distinction without a difference when it comes to civil rights. This is why South Carolina struggles even now to justify its law based upon facts or logic. Here's how TPM's Reilly covered Monday's developments at the trial:
Speaking with TPM during a break in the
federal trial over whether the law violates the Voting Rights Act, Attorney
General Alan Wilson defended its provision that allows voters to use things
like military identification and passports to cast a ballot but bans them from
using student IDs.
Wilson said the reason was that students were largely
"transient" and a school identification card "doesn't prove you're a resident."
He said voters using passports and military IDs, even those with out-of-state
addresses, were known to be residents of the state because they were registered
to vote in the state.
When TPM pointed out that college students who had
out-of-state licenses were in the same situation, another attorney on South
Carolina's team jumped in to contradict Wilson, insisting the state law was
about proving identity rather than residency. After that line of questioning,
Wilson said he wouldn't be speaking with reporters about the case until closing
arguments on Friday.
Attorney General Wilson, incidentally, is the stepson of Rep. Joe Wilson, the Republican who notoriously shouted "You Lie" during a 2009 speech on Capitol Hill by President Barack Obama. And Friday, incidentally, is the day many court watchers expect a federal court ruling in Texas v. Holder, another Republican challenge to another Justice Department decision to prevent another discriminatory voting law to take place. When it comes to civil rights, and voting rights, the party of Lincoln -- the party of Everett Dirksen -- sure has come a long way.