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Supreme Court scraps key part of Voting Rights Act

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- the map that determines which states must get federal permission before they change their voting laws.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- the map that determines which states must get federal permission before they change their voting laws.

The ruling, a 5-4 decision by Chief Justice John Roberts, leaves the future of the law deeply uncertain because it will be up to a sharply divided Congress to redraw the map.

The Voting Rights Act requires nine states with a history of discrimination at the polls, mostly in the South, to get approval from the Justice Department or a special panel of judges before they change their voting laws.

The rule also applies to 12 cities and 57 counties elsewhere. The law was renewed most recently in 2006, but the coverage map still uses election data from 1972 to determine who is covered.

Some jurisdictions complained that they were being punished for the sins of many decades ago. An Alabama county brought the case. "Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions," Roberts wrote for the court.

The act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson, is considered the most important piece of civil rights legislation ever passed. Congress has renewed it four times, and the 2006 reauthorization won a huge majority in the House and passed the Senate 98-0.

That renewal extended the law through 2031. As part of the ruling Tuesday, the court published a chart comparing white and black voter registration in 1965 and in 2004 in the six states originally covered by the law. In Alabama, for example, the white registration rate was 69 percent and the black rate 19 percent in 1965.

By 2004, that gap had all but disappeared -- 74 percent for whites and 73 percent for blacks. "There is no doubt that these improvements are in large part because of the Voting Rights Act," Roberts wrote. "The Act has proved immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process."

However, the chief justice wrote: "If Congress had started from scratch in 2006, it plainly could not have enacted the present coverage formula." The decision was not a surprise because the court's conservatives had suggested that they had reservations about the law, said Tom Goldstein, the publisher of the influential SCOTUSblog and a Supreme Court analyst for NBC News.

He said that present-day politics would make it "unbelievably tough" for Congress to agree on any new coverage map. Roberts was joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion and said that he would have struck down not just the map but the requirement that any jurisdiction get federal clearance to change a voting law.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a dissenting opinion and was joined by the three other members of the court's more liberal wing. She said that the court should defer to Congress. "When confronting the most constitutionally invidious form of discrimination, and the most fundamental right in our democratic system, Congress' power to act is at its height," Ginsburg wrote.

The case was brought by Shelby County, Ala., which urged the Supreme Court to strike down both the permission requirement itself and the formula that determines which jurisdictions are covered. The justices, particularly those on the court's conservative wing, had expressed deep skepticism when the case was argued in February that the permission requirement is still necessary.

The wide margins of approval in Congress, Justice Antonin Scalia said at the argument, are likely the result of "perpetuation of racial entitlement" -- a remark that angered some veterans of the civil rights movement. "Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements," Scalia said, "it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes."

And the court signaled four years ago, in a decision that narrowly rejected a challenge to the permission requirement, that it had doubts about whether at least parts of the Voting Rights Act were constitutional. "Things have changed in the South," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in that decision. "Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare."... By Pete Williams and Erin McClam, NBC News
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