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Voting Rights Act survives court challenge

Associated Press / June 23, 2009
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WASHINGTON - The Voting Rights Act, the government’s chief weapon against racial discrimination at polling places since the 1960s, survived a Supreme Court challenge yesterday in a ruling that nevertheless warned of serious constitutional questions posed by part of the law.

Major civil rights groups and other defenders of the landmark law breathed a sigh of relief when the court ruled narrowly in favor of a small Texas governing authority while sidestepping the larger constitutional issue.

After argument in late April, it appeared the court’s conservatives could have a majority to strike down part of the law as unnecessary in an era marked by the election of the first African-American president.

But with only one justice in dissent, the court avoided the questions raised over the section of the voting law that requires all or parts of 16 states - mainly in the South and with a history of discrimination in voting - to get Justice Department approval before making changes in the way elections are conducted.

The court said that the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 in Austin, Texas, could apply to opt out of the advance approval requirement, reversing a lower federal court that ruled it could not. The district appears to meet the requirements to bail out, although the high court did not pass judgment yesterday on that point.

Five months after Barack Obama became president, Chief Justice John G. Roberts said the justices decided not to determine whether dramatic civil rights gains mean the advance approval requirement is no longer necessary. That issue, Roberts said, “is a difficult constitutional question we do not answer today.’’

Attorney General Eric Holder called the decision a victory for voting rights and said the court “ensured that this law will continue to protect free and fair access to the voting booth.’’

Debo Adegbile, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund lawyer who argued for the preservation of the law at the high court, said, “The fact is, the case was filed to tear the heart out of the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act and that effort failed today.’’

But critics of the law said the court made clear that it may not take such a restrained approach the next time a voting rights challenge comes it way.