Ipso Facto Q&A: NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Dale Ho

Monday, 25 February 2013 01:00 AM Written by  Drew Singer

20130225 NAACPDaleHo 150Dale Ho is an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. This Wednesday, his team will represent black voters in Shelby County v. Holder, a U.S. Supreme Court case over the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The court will examine a requirement that certain state and local governments (mostly located in the South) obtain federal permission before changing election laws, including redistricting and voter identification requirements.

Ho took a break from argument preparations to chat with Ipso Facto about why Pittsburgh should care about this case and what it’s like to prep for Supreme Court argument.

Ipso Facto: Pittsburgh isn’t covered by the federal preclearance requirement. Why should we care?

Dale Ho: In a technical sense, it won't effect you immediately and directly, but this case isn’t just about that, it’s about Congress’ ability and discretion to enact strong civil rights statutes, which protect everyones’ rights. This isn’t really about “Do we need the Voting Rights Act anymore,” because that’s not the type of question the Supreme Court decides. The court make decisions about the limits that the Constitution places on government bodies, so for them to rule against us, they’d be saying Congress doesn’t have the power to enact strong civil rights policies like anymore, which puts civil rights protections in other part of the country at risk.

Q: What’s your role?

Ho: We represent intervenors in the case. Private citizens, individual voters whose rights are protected by the Voting Rights Act. I’m a member of the team on the case and one of the principal drafters of the brief on the case.

Q: How is your team preparing for argument?

Ho: It’s the legal equivalent of those training scenes in the Rocky movies. It’s nowhere near as exciting, although it can be physically grueling because we go pretty late at night. We run through all the almost-infinite number of questions that the Supreme Court might ask, and really try to hone those answers.

Q: How will this decision impact the country at-large?

Ho: The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is often referred to as the crowned jewel of the civil rights movement. Before that act was passed, democracy in many parts of the country was in shambles — those are Justice Kennedy’s words from four years ago. You had voter registration rates in parts of the country for African-Americans that were below 10 percent. The act really changed that, but progress isn’t over. Even though access to registration has improved, problems with voting discrimination is still with us. We still see discriminatory techniques designed to prevent minority voters from voting, and there are hundreds of examples of that happening since the last time the act was reauthorized.

Q: How is this going to play out?

Ho: There’s going to be an argument. Shelby County will argue we don’t need the act anymore. They’ll say things have improved, but that doesn’t mean that all of our problems are behind us. Just because things have improved doesn’t mean that this act, which the Supreme Court has upheld as constitutional four times over four decades, has suddenly become unconstitutional.

Q: That’s what’s going to happen, but what’s really going to happen?

Ho: What we hear a lot is this the most conservative Supreme Court in some time. What you’re really asking is are we concerned. They haven’t been the most hospitable court to civil rights issues, so whenever something like that goes before this court, there is concern. But whenever judges in the lower courts, both conservative and liberal, have looked closely at what’s still happening in this country, they’ve concluded that this act is not only justifiable, but essential to our democracy.

In the Texas redistricting case last year, 2 of the 3 judges appointed were by [President George W. Bush], but they found unanimously that state legislature discriminated against black voters when they redrew the voting districts, that minority voters wouldn’t have an effective say. When judges don’t think of this through their abstract view of how they want the world to be, and instead look a the actual evidence, we get less concerned.

Q: What misconception will you have to clear to win this argument?

Ho: This idea that because we don’t have events like the Bloody Sunday that took place in Alabama, where you have nonviolent protesters beaten by state troopers with dogs and tear gas, just because things like that don’t really happen anymore, doesn’t mean there aren’t problems with discrimination and voting. The voting rights act has prevented hundreds of cases of discrimination.

There’s also this notion that the act punishes the south and discriminates against southerners. But it also applies to areas outside the south that have had issues with racial voting, it’s not targeting the states just because they’re in the south.

Q: What else?

Ho: One irony about this case is that it arises out of Alabama, the birthplace of the Voting Rights Act. I think it’s really ironic that a county in Alabama would be the one to stand up and say we don’t need the Voting Rights Act anymore when Alabama continues, to this day, to have problems with voting discrimination.

(Image: Dale Ho, NAACP Legal Defense Fund)

Drew Singer is a third-year student at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or on Twitter @Drew_Singer.

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