U.S. Supreme Court justices suggested they may cut back the 1965 Voting Rights Act, saying Congress was using an outdated formula to decide which states must comply with a core provision of the landmark law.
Hearing arguments today in Washington, the court’s Republican-appointed justices expressed skepticism about the law’s requirement that all or parts of 16 states get federal clearance before changing their voting rules. The court’s Democratic appointees voiced support for the law.
The case threatens one of the signature achievements of the civil rights movement, a law aimed at the discrimination that had kept generations of Southern blacks from voting. Together with a separate fight over university affirmative action, the voting case may make the current Supreme Court term a watershed for the legal rules governing race, rolling back decades-old protections. The court will rule in both cases by June.
The skeptics today included the likely swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who faulted Congress for relying on a decades- old formula for determining which states were covered. Kennedy said if Congress is going to “single out” some states, “it should do it by name.”
At issue is the law’s so-called preclearance requirement, also known as Section 5. The provision requires all or parts of 16 states, including virtually the entire South, to get federal approval before changing election districts, voting rules or even polling locations. A separate section of the law bars voting discrimination nationwide and isn’t affected by the high court case.
The Justice Department has used the requirement to object to more than 2,400 state and local voting changes since 1982. The Obama administration last year invoked Section 5 in stopping Republican-backed voter-identification laws in Texas and South Carolina from going into effect.
Congress reauthorized the law’s preclearance requirement in 2006, extending it for 25 years on lopsided votes: 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House. Then-President George W. Bush, a Republican, signed the measure into law.
Civil rights leaders Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson listened to the argument today in the packed courtroom, as other supporters of the Voting Rights Act rallied on the sidewalk in front of the court.
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