Voting rights fight on in Texas
State challenging federal oversight part of legislation
AUSTIN, Texas - The community of Canyon Creek was ranchland rich with limestone and cedar trees when Jim Crow held sway in the South. The first house wasn't built until the late 1980s and not even a hint of discrimination attaches to this little slice in suburbia.
President Obama won more than 48 percent of the vote in November in this overwhelmingly white community northwest of the state capital.
Yet Canyon Creek, the heart of Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One, is the site of a major Supreme Court battle over the federal government's often used and most effective tool in preventing voting discrimination against minorities.
The utility district's elected five-member board manages a local park and pays down bond debt. Because it is in Texas, the board is covered by a section of the Voting Rights Act that requires approval from the Justice Department before changes can be made in how elections are conducted.
That requirement applies to all or parts of 16 states, mostly in the South, with a history of preventing blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities from voting.
The utility district is challenging that section of the law, which Congress extended in 2006 for 25 years. The Obama administration is defending it.
The Voting Rights Act, enacted in 1965, opened the polls to millions of black Americans. The federal government has used the provision, known as Section 5, to "stop things that would have perverted our democracy," said John Payton, director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. His group represents Texans and organizations seeking to preserve the section.
On the other side are the utility district, conservative legal groups, and some Southern Republicans.
Texas and other Southern states once might have deserved to be under federal supervision, but the time for this "unparalleled federal intrusion" on a traditional power of state and local governments has passed, the utility district says in its challenge.
The justices will hear arguments on Wednesday.
Much has changed in the South and elsewhere in the country, not least of which is Obama's election, Gregory Coleman, the district's lawyer, has told the court.
If the justices side with Canyon Creek, they could strike down Section 5 entirely, eliminating the need for any jurisdiction to seek approval for election changes, or tailor a narrow ruling that applies only to the utility district.
Majorities of Democrats and Republicans in Congress thought it was necessary when they voted in 2006 to extend the advance approval requirement for 25 more years. President Bush, a Texan and a Republican, signed the measure into law.