In the not-too-distant past, champions of voting rights would look to the courts as a refuge when policymakers failed them. As Republican-appointed jurists close that door -- the Supreme Court's far-right majority further gutted the Voting Rights Act yesterday -- guardians of the franchise are noticeably short on options.
As The Atlantic's Ron Brownstein noted, the high court's small progressive minority has effectively declared, "We've done all we can here." If Americans' voting rights are to be shielded from their attackers, at what Justice Elena Kagan described as "a perilous moment for the Nation's commitment to equal citizenship," the work will fall to others.
It was against this backdrop that the Justice Department issued a written statement in response to the Supreme Court's ruling in Brnovich v. DNC:
"The Attorney General has made clear, 'the Department of Justice will never stop working to protect the democracy to which all Americans are entitled.' The department remains strongly committed to challenging discriminatory election laws and will continue to use every legal tool available to protect all qualified Americans seeking to participate in the electoral process. The department urges Congress to enact additional legislation to provide more effective protection for every American's right to vote."
It was, of course, that last sentence that stood out: the Justice Department "urges Congress to enact additional legislation to provide more effective protection for every American's right to vote."
This is the same Justice Department that's trying to do its part, filing a federal lawsuit last week against Georgia Republicans' new voter-suppression law.
It's a case rooted in Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act -- which Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices just hit with a wrecking ball.
Stepping back, the message to Congress -- or more to the point, Senate Democrats -- is hardly subtle. Progressive activists are begging for voting rights protections. Democratic state legislators are pleading with federal lawmakers to protect voting rights. Progressive justices on the Supreme Court are throwing up their arms in despair, feeling powerless to protect voting rights.
And now the Justice Department is also urging Congress to step up to shield the franchise.
The question then becomes what, if anything, Senate Democrats are prepared to do about it. Last week, the Senate tried to move forward with a debate on a revised version of the For the People Act, but the Republican minority used a filibuster to derail the discussion. All 50 members of the Senate Democratic conference were united on this -- no small feat, to be sure -- but GOP senators wouldn't allow a debate, a vote, or a voting rights breakthrough.
The next couple of months will be critical, and as we recently discussed, the door isn't completely closed. As the Associated Press reported, "Discussions are ongoing among congressional Democrats on how to proceed, with leaders noting privately that both [Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin] oppose eliminating the rule — but that doesn't mean they would oppose changing it. And President Joe Biden has signaled a willingness to consider a change."
The AP article added that Democratic leaders don't expect to eliminate the filibuster altogether, but they believe there's "an opportunity to improve the process" through some procedural changes.
I don't doubt some senators will be skeptical, but given the severity of the threats, and the Justice Department pushing Congress to do the right thing, the burden on protecting voting rights is falling on 50 individuals.