In an 8-to-1 decision announced Monday, the high court embraced a more expansive reading of a key part of Section 5. The provision requires jurisdictions governed by the Voting Rights Act to obtain federal permission before making any changes to election procedures. The ruling broadens the kinds of jurisdictions that can use the so-called "bailout" provision in Section 5 to end federal oversight.
"We ... hold that all political subdivisions ... are eligible to file a bailout suit," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.
The case was being watched closely because many analysts believed a majority of justices might vote to strike down the law as an unconstitutional power grab by Congress.
Instead of confronting that constitutional issue in what would have been a highly controversial decision, the majority justices resolved the case by interpreting the underlying voting-rights statute.
The Voting Rights Act was passed 44 years ago to protect equal access to the ballot and weed out illegal efforts to subvert minority voting power. It applies to all or parts of 16 states, mostly in the South. The law has been reauthorized several times, most recently in 2006 for 25 years.
At issue in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder was whether Congress was justified in issuing a blanket extension of the law to the existing covered jurisdictions without undertaking a new, comprehensive review to concentrate federal enforcement action on the worst offenders.
Because the entire state of Texas is a covered jurisdiction under the voting rights law, the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District was required to seek approval in Washington for any changes in polling procedures or locations.
Lawyers for the district filed a lawsuit seeking an exemption from the Section 5 requirements. District officials argued that they had never been the subject of a single voting discrimination allegation and should not be forced to undertake extraordinary remedial measures as if they had played a role in Jim Crow-style disenfranchisement of minority voting rights.
A panel of federal judges in Washington threw the suit out, saying Congress had acted within its constitutional authority. The panel also said the utility district was not entitled to bailout of the pre-clearance requirements. The bailout provision only applied to those political jurisdictions that register voters, the court ruled. Since the utility district did not register voters, it could not seek a Section 5 bailout.
On Monday, the US Supreme Court reversed the panel's decision on the scope of the bailout provision.
"The Voting Rights Act permits all political subdivisions, including the district in this case, to seek relief from its preclearance requirements," Chief Justice Roberts wrote.
In a lone dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said he agreed with the court on the bailout provision, but that he would nonetheless hold that Congress exceeded its authority in its 2006 reauthorization of the voting rights law.