Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), who shed his own blood fighting for the passage if the Voting Rights Act in 1965, said he almost cried when he heard Justice Antonin Scalia’s comment Tuesday that the landmark civil rights law is a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” Scalia made the comment during oral argument on the constitutionality of a key section of the law, suggesting that the law would always be passed by lawmakers too afraid to vote against it unless the court halted it. The Nation’s Ari Berman tweets:
Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis told me he almost cried when Scalia called Voting Rights Act a ‘perpetuation of racial entitlement’
— Ari Berman (@AriBerman) February 28, 2013
And Lewis explained his disbelief to Al Sharpton on MSNBC:
It was unreal, unbelievable, almost shocking for a member of the court to use that language. I can see politicians and even members of Congress. But it was just appalling to me. It is an affront to all of what the civil rights movement stood for, what people died for, what people bled for, and those of us who marched across that bridge 48 years ago, we didn’t march for some racial entitlement. We wanted to open up the political process, and let all of the people come in, and it didn’t matter whether they were black or white, Latino, Asian-American or Native American.
The right to vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent instrument that we have in a democratic society. And if the courts come to that point where they declare this section, section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, unconstitutional, it would be a dagger in the heart of the democratic process.
Lewis was one among many court-watchers and commentators who were shocked and appalled by Scalia’s comment. And not just because he trivialized the civil rights movement. His suggestion that the court must intervene to overturn legislation with too much support is also anathema to his own rigid textualist approach to reading the Constitution. As Ian Millhiser recently pointed out, even if Scalia’s perverse racial entitlements theory had some merit, it is nowhere to be found in the text of the Constitution.