In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of Homer Plessy, in the case Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896). Plessy, a citizen of one-eighths African and seven-eighths Caucasian descent, challenged Louisiana’s 1890 Separate Car Act by sitting in a whites-only railway car and refusing to relocate to the blacks-only car when requested. The Court decided against Plessy, which affirmed into law the beginning of the separate-but-elusively-equal era, and delivered a crippling blow to the progress of people of color.
Fast-forward 117 years and the Court heard a case from Alabama revolving around the disenfranchisement of a group of people’s voting rights, in the case of Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, 133 S. Ct. 2612 (2013). However, this time it wasn’t a member of the disenfranchised group who brought the action; it was the County of Shelby, Alabama, seeking to declare the formula and preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. The action was against, amongst others, the nation’s first African American U.S. attorney general, Eric Holder. The Court found in favor of Shelby County, declaring the formula of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional—which also undermined the preclearance requirement because it was based on the formula—and thus marked the beginning of an uncertain future with regard to voting rights for many disenfranchised people.
When the Court decided Plessy, Justice John Marshall Harlan in his dissent predicted that the case would prove to be as pernicious as the Dred Scott case. Looking back, we see that Justice Harlan was not off base because Plessy created the legal basis for several decades of the marginalization of people of color, who were the most vulnerable citizens of the time. In like manner, Shelby County is quickly becoming the Plessy of its day, marginalizing the most vulnerable citizens, mainly the poor and people of color, by compromising their fundamental right to vote.
If we look at these two decisions side by side, we can see that they are mirror images of each other. The cases are mirror images because they both involve a similar issue, but the parties and perspectives have switched. Specifically, both cases involve the federal government’s role in the protection of a disenfranchised group from adverse action by the states. However, the parties and perspective have reversed from an African American plaintiff challenging a state law, to a state county challenging an African American attorney general’s enforcement of a federal law.