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Critics say the 1965 law is outdated when an African-American can be elected president.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

"Without the continuation of the [VRA's] protections, racial and language minority citizens will be deprived of the opportunity to exercise their right to vote, or will have their votes diluted," Congress concluded.

The lawmakers added, "Forty years has not been a sufficient amount of time to eliminate the vestiges of discrimination following nearly 100 years of disregard for the dictates of the 15th amendment" The 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the right to vote regardless of race or color.

The House voted 390-33 for the reauthorization. The Senate supported it unanimously.

The measure covers eight states: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas. It also applies to portions of eight other states: California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota, and Virginia.

The Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District is a board established to provide local services to about 3,500 residents. The board wasn't created until the 1980s, and it has no history of past or current discrimination, so it should be exempt from the federal pre-clearance requirements, its lawyers say.

And if the Municipal Utility District is not eligible for exemption from the law, the law itself is unconstitutional, they argue.

Coleman urged a three-judge panel in Washington to rule that Congress overstepped its authority in reauthorizing the law to apply to the Municipal Utility District without any evidence of discrimination. He said Congress must tailor its laws so they are proportional to the alleged wrongs under attack.

The three-judge panel ruled against the Municipal Utility District, saying that it was not a "political subdivision" within the meaning of the law and thus did not qualify for an exemption from the law. In addition, the court ruled that the record assembled by Congress justified the continued pre-clearance regulations. Coleman appealed to the US Supreme Court.

The case is Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Mukasey (08-322).

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