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Supreme Court weighs fairness of landmark voting rights law

Justices heard arguments Wednesday about whether a provision of the Voting Rights Act unfairly discriminates against jurisdictions in 16 states.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 30, 2009


A sharply divided US Supreme Court took up a potential landmark case on Wednesday examining whether Congress overstepped its authority in 2006 when it reauthorized a key portion of the Voting Rights Act.

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Section 5 of the law requires state and local jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to obtain federal permission before making any changes to voting procedures. The law, first passed in 1965, covers all or parts of 16 states – primarily in the South.

The measure was set to run for five years. Congress has since reauthorized it four times, including in 2006.

Now, 44 years after its passage, with the recent election of the nation's first African-American president and other civil rights advances, some analysts question whether Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is still justified and necessary. On Wednesday, Justice Anthony Kennedy asked: Can Congress continue to treat jurisdictions differently?

The case at issue is Northwest Austin Utility District v. Holder. The Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District has no history of racial discrimination, but because it is located within the state of Texas, which is a covered jurisdiction under Section 5, it must obtain prior federal approval for any changes affecting its elections.

During oral argument on the case Wednesday at the Supreme Court, the nine justices split along familiar liberal and conservative lines. Justice Kennedy seemed poised to cast the deciding vote.

"No one questions the validity, the urgency, the essentiality of the Voting Rights Act," he said. "The question is whether or not it should be continued with this differentiation between the states."

Kennedy and several conservative justices said Congress appears to have relied on the past record of discrimination in the 1960s to justify its recent 25-year extension of Section 5.

Several liberal justices countered that current evidence of discrimination is more than enough to justify the reauthorization.

Kennedy said complying with the law cost state and local governments $1 billion over 10 years. He said he was concerned that the law caused the federal government to treat the states unequally.

"Congress has made a finding that the sovereignty of Georgia is less than the sovereign dignity of Ohio. The sovereignty of Alabama is less than the sovereign dignity of Michigan," Kennedy said. "The governments in one are to be trusted less than the governments in the other."

Deputy Solicitor General Neal Katyal responded that unlike the 1960s, the states generally were no longer challenging federal oversight in court. He said the states now "overwhelmingly appreciate" being subject to the requirements of Section 5.