Days before the first Black president takes office, the Supreme Court agreed Friday to consider overturning a key feature of the main federal law that ensures access to the polls by minorities.
The justices said they will review a lower court ruling upholding a provision of the Voting Rights Act that requires all or parts of 16 states with a history of racial discrimination, most in the South, to get approval before implementing any changes in the way elections are held.
In 2006, Congress voted overwhelmingly to extend the measure for another 25 years. The 1965 law was designed to prevent governments from making it harder for minorities to vote.
The high court has upheld earlier extensions of the provision that calls for either the U.S. attorney general or a court to sign off in advance on changes to requirements to hold office, polling places and other issues involving the conduct of elections.
The justices will hear the case in April and probably decide it by June, against the backdrop of a presidential election that was unimaginable when the law was enacted more than 40 years ago.
“The elephant in the room is what to make of the Obama election,” said Nathaniel Persily, professor of law and political science at Columbia Law School, referring to the election of Barack Obama.
“Does the election of the first African-American president undermine the central justification for parts of the Voting Rights Act?” said Persily.
Under Chief Justice John Roberts, the court has looked skeptically at government efforts to take race into account in the assignment of students to public schools and the drawing of electoral districts.
A second case accepted for argument Friday looks at whether a decision by New Haven, Conn., to scrap a promotion exam after too few minorities passed it violates the civil rights of White and Hispanic firefighters who did well enough to advance.
The latest voting rights challenge comes from a local Texas government that says it was created in the 1980s, has no history of discrimination and shouldn’t be subject to what it calls “the most federally invasive law in existence.”
Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1, a government board formed to provide local services to about 3,500 people, sued following the 2006 extension. The board asked the court to exempt it from the law and said Congress had not shown a link between the district’s need to get advance approval and past racial discrimination.
A federal court in Washington ruled in May that the prior approval provision is constitutional.
The three-judge panel said that the utility board didn’t qualify as a “political subdivision” and could not be exempted from the law. It also ruled that racial discrimination in voting persists and that Congress acted appropriately when it extended the law.
Under the law, appeals go directly to the Supreme Court.
But the court could avoid the constitutional issue if it finds that the board has the right to bail out of the law.
Congress has extended the Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act four times, in 1970, 1975, 1982 and 2006.
An array of rights groups, including the NAACP, American Civil Liberties Union and Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, have intervened in the case in support of the law.
President George W. Bush signed the latest extension into law and his administration asked the high court to affirm the lower-court ruling. The government noted in court papers that more than 2,400 proposed voting changes have been blocked since 1982.
“The record includes evidence of discrimination throughout covered jurisdictions perpetrated at every level of government,” the government said.
Eight states are covered in their entirety: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas. In Virginia, all but 15 cities and counties must comply with the measure.
Parts of California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota also need permission to make voting changes.
The case is Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Mukasey, 08-322.
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