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George Zimmerman. (Associated Press)

George Zimmerman. (Associated Press)

Beam: ‘Squeaky wheels getting grease’

Last Modified: Friday, July 26, 2013 5:20 PM

By Jim Beam / American Press

Reaction to both the George Zimmerman trial and the U.S. Supreme Court’s voting rights ruling have proved that the loudest protests are the ones most likely to get attention. And public officials couldn’t wait to play to those audiences that like to stir things up.

Authorities in Sanford, Fla., were reluctant to charge Zimmerman after the death of Trayvon Martin, but public pressure forced them to put him on trial. And when Zimmerman was found not guilty, the furor continued. Civil rights groups demanded that Zimmerman be charged under federal statutes.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was more than willing to oblige by saying he would pursue an investigation into the killing. The NAACP launched a petition drive in mid-July aimed at pushing Holder and his Justice Department to keep its civil rights division working on the case.

Most legal experts say there is little likelihood that civil rights charges against Zimmerman would be successful, but that doesn’t mean much. The pressure is still out there for Holder’s office to second guess the country’s justice system that set Zimmerman free.

While that issue is still on a front burner, Holder decided to do an end-run around the Supreme Court. The high court threw out that portion of the Voting Rights Act that said all or parts of 15 states, mainly in the South, had to have Justice Department approval before they could change election laws.

Chief Justice John Roberts stated the court’s reasoning in simple, understandable terms. He said the conditions that originally justified Justice Department pre-clearance had changed, and Congress needs to take that into consideration. In other words, some of those states have proved they don’t discriminate and deserve to be removed from that requirement.

Doug Chalmers, an Atlanta-area attorney, represented Sandy Springs, Ga., which was successful in getting the city released from the pre-clearance requirement. He explained why the court ruled as it did.

“The Voting Rights Act was a very valuable piece of legislation in correcting one of the great injustices in American history,” Chalmers told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But as often happens, it was applied far too broadly long after it was needed and created a great backlash.”

Roberts told Congress to fix the law, which it failed to do on two previous occasions. Now, there appears to be a serious effort under way to do just that. Whether anything can be accomplished is hard to determine because of a divided Congress. However, members of both major political parties are at least talking about doing something.

Meanwhile, Holder has decided to strike out on his own. He told the National Urban League “we cannot allow the slow unraveling of the progress that so many, throughout history, have sacrificed so much to achieve.”

Texas is his first target. Holder wants to put pre-clearance back into the picture. He said his department’s first move would be to ask a federal court in San Antonio to require advance approval for voting changes in Texas for a 10-year period. A court panel has been looking since 2011 at congressional and state election districts in Texas to determine if they discriminate.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, D-Texas, cut to the chase when he said, “This decision has nothing to do with protecting voting rights and everything to do with advancing a partisan political agenda.”

Unfortunately, some states are playing right into Holder’s hands. Texas, for example, has had some of its election districts rejected by the courts since 1970 because they discriminated against voters. The North Carolina Senate wants to shorten early voting days by one week, and that is seen as another way to restrict voting since Democrats vote earlier than others. It’s difficult to understand why both states are pressing their luck when they are ahead at the moment.

What is the bottom line in all of this?

For starters, the justice system has spoken in the Zimmerman case, and the Supreme Court has ruled on the Voting Rights Act. Those who don’t like the way either situation turned out have every right to complain and protest, but political leaders shouldn’t fuel their discontent by playing politics with both issues. We know we are going to get protests from people like the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, whose very existence depends on stirring up unrest, but we expect better from our elected and appointed officials.

Then, as I have heard so many times in recent weeks, “It’s the damn news media.” People are fed up with TV networks and others in the media business who thrive on these hot-button issues. They keep them alive day and night for the ratings. And writers stir the tensions when they use inflammatory words like “gutting the (voting rights) law’s crown jewel.”

The Zimmerman jury has rendered its verdict, and the Supreme Court has issued its ruling. Congress is also trying to fix the Voting Rights Law as the chief justice said it should. Maybe it will succeed, and maybe it won’t. But that’s the way the justice and legislative systems are supposed to work, and they did their job in both instances. Is there no end to these protests? When is enough enough?

Most Americans breathed a sigh of relief last week when the media turned its attention to the birth of England’s Prince George. We finally got a well-deserved break after weeks of tension and turmoil. Let’s hope it lasts for a while.

    • • •

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or jbeam@americanpress.com

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