June 25, 2013

Supreme Court voids key part of Voting Rights Act

In a 5-4 vote, deeply divided justices said that the law relies on 40-year-old data that does not reflect racial progress in the U.S.

The Associated Press

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Alabama Gov. Bentley, a Republican, pointed to his state's legislature — 27 percent black, similar to Alabama's overall population — as a sign of the state's progress.

The court challenge came from Shelby County, Ala., a Birmingham suburb.

The prior approval requirement had applied to the states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. It also covered certain counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota, and some local jurisdictions in Michigan. Coverage was triggered by past discrimination not only against blacks, but also against American Indians, Asian-Americans, Alaska Natives and Hispanics.

Obama, whose historic election was a subtext in the court's consideration of the case, pledged that his administration would continue to fight discrimination in voting. "While today's decision is a setback, it doesn't represent the end of our efforts to end voting discrimination," the president said. "I am calling on Congress to pass legislation to ensure every American has equal access to the polls."

Congress essentially ignored the court's threat to upend the voting rights law in a similar case four years ago. Roberts said the "failure to act leaves us today with no choice."

Congressional Democrats said they are eager to make changes, but Republicans were largely noncommittal.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said he expects Republicans to block efforts to revive the law, even though a Republican-led Congress overwhelmingly approved its latest renewal in 2006 and President George W. Bush signed it into law.

"As long as Republicans have a majority in the House and Democrats don't have 60 votes in the Senate, there will be no preclearance. It is confounding that after decades of progress on voting rights, which have become part of the American fabric, the Supreme Court would tear it asunder," Schumer said.

Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department "will not hesitate to take swift enforcement action, using every legal tool that remains available to us, against any jurisdiction that seeks to take advantage of the Supreme Court's ruling by hindering eligible citizens' full and free exercise of the franchise."

Those federal tools include other permanent provisions of the Voting Rights Act that prohibit discrimination and apply nationwide. But they place the burden of proof on the government and can be used only one case at a time.

The Obama administration and civil rights groups said there is a continuing need for the federal law and pointed to the Justice Department's efforts to block voter ID laws in South Carolina and Texas last year, as well as a redistricting plan in Texas that a federal court found discriminated against the state's large and growing Hispanic population.

The justices all agreed that discrimination in voting still exists.

But Roberts said that the covered states have largely eradicated the problems that caused them to be included in the first place.

"The coverage formula that Congress reauthorized in 2006 ignores these developments, keeping the focus on decades-old data relevant to decades-old problems, rather than current data reflecting current needs," the chief justice said.

Ginsburg countered that Congress had found that the prior approval provision was necessary "to prevent a return to old ways."

Instead, "the court today terminates the remedy that proved to be best suited to block that discrimination," she said in a dissent that she read aloud in the packed courtroom.

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