You should vote be­cause you can

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Re­nee Chenault Fat­tah Re­nee Chenault Fat­tah is a lawyer and a mem­ber of the Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity Board of Trus­tees. Her email is rchenault­fat­tah@gmail.com.

In a few weeks, my daugh­ter turns 18 and will vote in the Novem­ber elec­tion. I’ve taken her to the polls with mesince she was a tod­dler, and now it’s her turn. Not vot­ing is not an op­tion. She knows we vote be­cause of our his­tory, be­cause of voter sup­pres­sion, be­cause it’s a birthright of cit­i­zen­ship and that in an im­per­fect world, it’s still the way to ef­fect change.

Re­cently, two im­por­tant Amer­i­can voices weighed in on what’s at stake.

Ad­dress­ing the Con­gres­sional Black Cau­cus Din­ner, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama put into his­tor­i­cal con­text the strug­gle for vot­ing rights and then said, “I will con­sider it a per­sonal in­sult — an in­sult to my legacy — if this com­mu­nity lets down its guard. You want to give me a good send-off? Go Vote.”

As much as I love our pres­i­dent and as en­thu­si­as­ti­cally as his mes­sage was re­ceived, it missed the mark. The im­por­tance of vot­ing goes much deeper than per­sonal in­sults or “send-offs.” Which brings me to the sec­ond voice.

Judge Da­mon J. Keith, near­ing his sixth decade on the fed­eral court at age 94, set me­dia news sites on fire with his dis­sent in a 6th U.S. Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals vot­ing rights case over pro­ce­dural re­quire­ments in Ohio’s vot­ing laws for ab­sen­tee and pro­vi­sional bal­lots. The trial court found these rules to dis­pro­por­tion­ately im­pact mi­nor­ity vot­ers. On ap­peal, the ma­jor­ity struck down much of the trial court’s de­ci­sion. Judge Keith pas­sion­ately dis­agreed and in his dis­sent in­cluded a photo gallery of men and women he called “mar­tyrs for jus­tice.”

“The mur­ders of count­less men and women who strug­gled for the right to vote and equal pro­tec­tion can­not be over­looked,” he wrote.

No one who knows Judge Keith was sur­prised by his fiery dis­sent. It was his fi­delity to the Con­sti­tu­tion and his string of coura­geous civil rights de­ci­sions that in­spired me, more than 30 years ago, to clerk for him. I was an ide­al­is­tic young black lawyer bent on a ca­reer in civil rights af­ter a stint with a big law firm. Clerk­ing for the judge was the best job I ever held. And while my ca­reer path veered, Judge Keith has never wa­vered in his com­mit­ment to the Con­sti­tu­tion or his re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as a black judge. In a 1983 law re­view ar­ti­cle, he wrote: “Black judges must take ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to fash­ion the law in a man­ner that re­flects the 300 year his­tory of dis­crim­i­na­tion that our peo­ple have suf­fered in this land.”

This year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion will be the first in more than half a cen­tury with­out the full pro­tec­tion of the Vot­ing Rights Act. It was no ac­ci­dent that Judge Keith’s dis­sent re­ferred to the elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Obama. Dur­ing those eight years we saw the high­est voter turnout in his­tory by black and young peo­ple.

“Our de­ci­sion to­day, and more de­ci­sions like this one, will un­doubt­edly shape the fu­ture of this Na­tion be­cause de­cid­ing who gets to vote inevitably af­fects who will be­come our lead­ers,” wrote Judge Keith.

His own walk to­ward jus­tice has been a long one. Ap­pointed by Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son in 1967, he made land­mark rul­ings in the most im­por­tant civil rights is­sues of our time in hous­ing, ed­u­ca­tion, em­ploy­ment and civil lib­er­ties. Judge Keith is as steeped in the his­tory of civil rights as any of the move­ment’s he­roes, from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Judge Keith’s men­tor Thur­good Mar­shall, to the woman he calls Mother Parks. In fact, when Rosa Parks moved to Detroit, Judge Keith found her em­ploy­ment at the fed­eral court build­ing. Look­ing back on those days, it seems sur­real to re­mem­ber rou­tinely see­ing the mother of the civil rights move­ment in the court­house hall­ways.

The judge’s long record of fight­ing for jus­tice and equal­ity should be front and cen­ter for all of us as we head into this elec­tion. And it may es­pe­cially res­onate with first-time vot­ers. If there is one thing that mat­ters to mil­len­ni­als, it’s fair­ness and so­cial con­scious­ness.

In fact, their ac­tivism is rem­i­nis­cent of what was hap­pen­ing dur­ing the civil rights move­ment. The cur­rent cease­less wave of black men and women across the coun­try dy­ing at the hands of po­lice cries out for re­form-minded judges, city coun­cil mem­bers, may­ors and pros­e­cu­tors. That hap­pens by vot­ing.

In the twi­light of his life, when Judge Keith could be en­joy­ing a well-de­served re­tire­ment with his daugh­ters and grand­chil­dren, in­stead he daily heads to the court­house. He con­tin­ues to joy­fully and pas­sion­ately cru­sade for jus­tice. And come Nov. 8, we, too, have to do our part.

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