WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court said Friday it will consider eliminating the government’s most potent weapon against racial discrimination at polling places since the 1960s.
The court acted three days after a diverse coalition of voters propelled President Obama to a second term in the White House.
With a look at affirmative action in higher education already on the agenda, the court is putting a spotlight on race by re-examining the ongoing necessity of laws and programs aimed at giving racial minorities access to major areas of American life from which they once were systematically excluded.
“This is a term in which many core pillars of civil rights and pathways to opportunity hang in the balance,” said Debo Adegbile, acting president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
In an order Friday, the justices agreed to hear a constitutional challenge to the part of the landmark Voting Rights Act that requires all or parts of 16 states with a history of discrimination in voting to get federal approval before making any changes in the way they hold elections.
The high court considered the same issue three years ago but sidestepped what Chief Justice John Roberts then called “a difficult constitutional question.”
The new appeal from Shelby County, Ala., near Birmingham, says state and local governments covered by the law have made significant progress and no longer should be forced to live under oversight from Washington.
“The America that elected and re-elected Barack Obama as its first African-American president is far different than when the Voting Rights Act was first enacted in 1965. Congress unwisely reauthorized a bill that is stuck in a Jim Crow-era time warp. It is unconstitutional,” said Edward Blum, director of the not-for-profit Project on Fair Representation, which is funding the challenges to the voting rights law and affirmative action.
But defenders of the law said there is a continuing need for it and pointed to the Justice Department’s efforts to block voter ID laws in South Carolina and Texas, as well as a redistricting plan in Texas that a federal court found discriminated against the state’s large and growing Hispanic population.
“What we know even more clearly now than we did when the court last considered this question is that a troubling strain of obstructing the path to the ballot box remains a part of our society,” Adegbile said.
Since the high court’s decision in 2009, Congress has not addressed the potential problems that were identified by the court.
Meanwhile, the law’s opponents sensed its vulnerability and filed several new lawsuits.
Addressing those challenges, lower courts have concluded that a history of discrimination and more recent efforts to harm minority voters justify continuing federal oversight.
The justices said they will examine whether the formula under which states are covered is outdated because it relies on 40-year-old data. By some measures, states covered by the law are outperforming some that are not.
Tuesday’s election results also provide an interesting backdrop for the court’s action.
Americans re-elected the nation’s first African-American president. Exit polls across the country indicated Obama won the votes of more than 70 percent of Hispanics and more than 90 percent of blacks. In Alabama, however, the exit polls showed Obama won only about 15 percent of the state’s white voters. In neighboring Mississippi, the numbers were even smaller, at 10 percent, the surveys found.
The case probably will be argued in February or March, with a decision expected by late June.