U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear voting rights case
Critics say the 1965 law is outdated when an African-American can be elected president.
Two months after Barack Obama's election as the nation's first African-American president, the US Supreme Court has agreed to examine whether a key portion of a law designed to protect minority voting rights is unconstitutional.Skip to next paragraph
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The high court announced on Friday that it would take up the case.
At issue is whether a municipal utility district in Texas can be forced to undergo federal oversight of any proposed changes to its election procedures under the Voting Rights Act even though the utility district has no current or prior history of discrimination.
Civil rights advocates had urged the high court not to hear the case. They say enforcement of the Voting Rights Act as originally written and enforced in the 1960s is still necessary to protect minority voters.
Lawyers for the utility district say Congress had little legal justification in 2006 when it reauthorized the federal law to reach jurisdictions like the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District.
"The America that has elected Barack Obama as its first African-American president is far different than when [the Voting Rights Act] was first enacted in 1965," writes Gregory Coleman in his brief urging the high court to examine the constitutionality of the law.
"There is no warrant for continuing to presume that jurisdictions first identified four decades ago as needing extraordinary federal oversight [under the voting rights law] remain uniformly incapable or unwilling to fulfill their obligations to faithfully protect the voting rights of all citizens in those parts of the country," Mr. Coleman says.
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires certain jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to obtain prior permission from Washington for any proposed changes in election procedures.
The Voting Rights Act was passed 44 years ago to eliminate Jim Crow laws designed to disenfranchise black voters, primarily in the South. Congress passed the law to protect equal access to the ballot in the face of persistent efforts to exclude or discourage racial minorities from exercising the right to vote.
Section 5 of the VRA was passed as a temporary measure, set to expire after five years. But Congress has since reauthorized the provision four times: in 1970, 1975, 1982, and 2006. The 2006 action extended the election pre-clearance requirements for an additional 25 years.
The Justice Department and an array of civil rights groups argue in their briefs to the court that the extension was seen as necessary by Congress. Between 2005 and 2006, Congress held 21 hearings and assembled a 15,000-page legislative record supporting the need to keep the law in place. From 1980 to 2000, the Attorney General objected to 421 voting changes in covered jurisdictions. In addition, they said, the law provides an effective deterrent to those who might otherwise attempt to disenfranchise certain voters.