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Key part of Voting Rights Act in peril after Supreme Court session

February 27, 2013 by NCC Staff


The Supreme Court heard arguments today about the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965, and early reports indicate the court could lean towards tossing out a key part of the civil rights law.

LyndonJohnson_signs_Voting_Rights_Act_of_1965Constitution Daily contributor Lyle Denniston will have a detailed analysis later today for us on the arguments in Shelby County v. Holder.

To be sure, the outcome of any Supreme Court decision is hard to predict.

But reports from inside a packed courtroom indicate the conservative majority of the Supreme Court wasn’t swayed by arguments by the Obama administration to keep the “preclearance” requirement in Section 5 of the law.

That provision requires all or parts of 16 states, including virtually the entire Southern region of the United States, to get Justice Department approval before changing election districts, voting rules, and polling locations. Those regions were singled out in 1965 because of past patterns of discrimination against minority voters.

Among those in attendance when the original act was signed were Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks. Today, Representative John Lewis, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and activist Al Sharpton were at the hearing.

Section 5 made headlines last year when the Justice Department used it to block voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina, two states that were under the preclearance doctrine.

Bloomberg News says that in the past two decades, Justice Department officials have used Section 5 to block more than 2,000 proposed voting changes in the preclearance states.

In Wednesday’s hearings, Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy seemed skeptical that Section 5 was relevant in today’s world, as the law was written in 1965. Both justices are considered the swing votes in the case.

One issue was the use of data from the 1970s to set requirements for Section 5; another was the argument that racial conditions have changed greatly since 1965, and preclearance isn’t needed.

The court won’t issue a decision in the case until June, but if part of the law is ruled unconstitutional and sent back to Congress to be changed, the preclearance requirement could face tough odds of returning in a revised law.

Another key part of the Voting Rights Act wasn’t under consideration today: Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in a minority group.

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