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Supreme Court to rule on scope of federal powers in Voting Rights Act case

A landmark civil-rights-era law will come before the US Supreme Court later this year, when the justices will consider if Congress was out of bounds in renewing a part of the Voting Rights Act.

By Staff writer / November 9, 2012

This photo shows the covered Supreme Court building in Washington in September 2012, with a protective scrim, as work continues on the facade.

Alex Brandon/AP/File

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The US Supreme Court on Friday agreed to examine whether Congress overstepped its authority in 2006 when it extended for 25 years a key portion of the Voting Rights Act.

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In announcing that it would take up an appeal filed by Shelby County, Ala., the high court is significantly boosting the profile of its current term. The justices have already heard a potential landmark case concerning the constitutionality of race-based affirmative action programs at state universities.

Now the court appears prepared to decide another potential landmark case examining the federal-state balance of power, and whether Congress acted within its constitutional authority in reauthorizing the civil-rights-era law.

The action comes three days after President Obama, the first African-American president, won reelection. And it comes several months after Mr. Obama’s Justice Department used Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to block newly enacted voter ID laws passed by Republican-controlled legislatures in Texas and South Carolina.

The laws had been patterned on a similar measure in Indiana that was upheld in 2008 by the US Supreme Court.

The Voting Rights Act (VRA) is considered one of the government’s most effective measures to promote and protect civil rights, and is sometimes called the crown jewel of the civil rights movement.

But some state and local governments say it imposes an unfair burden, forcing them to seek special approval from Washington under a regime that holds them accountable in 2012 for a history of discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s that they say has long since been remedied.

Supporters of the law counter that the United States has not yet solved the problem of racial discrimination in voting, and that the law is still needed to prevent backsliding.

The central argument against the law invokes federalism, the constitutionally mandated balance of power between the states and the national government. At issue is whether Sections 4 and 5 of the VRA are an improper intrusion by the federal government into the sovereign power of state and local governments.

Those two sections of the Voting Rights Act rely on Congress’s authority to enforce constitutional protections against racial discrimination in voting and elections. The high court has said such federal enforcement efforts must be "congruent and proportional" to the targeted problem.

Faced with persistent efforts by some jurisdictions in the 1950s and 1960s to systematically deny full voting rights to minorities, lawmakers in Washington decided to take extraordinary action.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 created a list of state and local governments with particularly egregious records of fostering discrimination in voting. The new law required those on the list to obtain permission from Washington before they could implement any new voting procedures.

Discriminatory procedures were disallowed. Thus, state and local governments that in the past had tried to bypass the Voting Rights Act’s requirement of equal treatment were forced to adopt fair voting procedures.

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