The US Supreme Court on Friday agreed to examine whether Congress
overstepped its authority in 2006 when it extended for 25 years a
key portion of the Voting Rights Act.
In announcing that it would take up an appeal filed by Shelby
County, Ala., the high court is significantly boosting the profile
of its current term. The justices have already heard a potential
landmark case concerning the constitutionality of race-based
affirmative action programs at state universities.
Now the court appears prepared to decide another potential
landmark case examining the federal-state balance of power, and
whether Congress acted within its constitutional authority in
reauthorizing the civil-rights-era law.
The action comes three days after President Obama, the first
African-American president, won reelection. And it comes several
months after Mr. Obamas Justice Department used Section 5 of the
Voting Rights Act to block newly enacted voter ID laws passed by
Republican-controlled legislatures in Texas and South Carolina.
The laws had been patterned on a similar measure in Indiana that
was upheld in 2008 by the US Supreme Court.
The Voting Rights Act (VRA) is considered one of the governments
most effective measures to promote and protect civil rights, and is
sometimes called the crown jewel of the civil rights movement.
But some state and local governments say it imposes an unfair
burden, forcing them to seek special approval from Washington under
a regime that holds them accountable in 2012 for a history of
discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s that they say has long since
Supporters of the law counter that the United States has not yet
solved the problem of racial discrimination in voting, and that the
law is still needed to prevent backsliding.
The central argument against the law invokes federalism, the
constitutionally mandated balance of power between the states and
the national government. At issue is whether Sections 4 and 5 of the
VRA are an improper intrusion by the federal government into the
sovereign power of state and local governments.
Those two sections of the Voting Rights Act rely on Congresss
authority to enforce constitutional protections against racial
discrimination in voting and elections. The high court has said such
federal enforcement efforts must be "congruent and proportional" to
the targeted problem.
Faced with persistent efforts by some jurisdictions in the 1950s
and 1960s to systematically deny full voting rights to minorities,
lawmakers in Washington decided to take extraordinary action.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 created a list of state and local
governments with particularly egregious records of fostering
discrimination in voting. The new law required those on the list to
obtain permission from Washington before they could implement any
new voting procedures.
Discriminatory procedures were disallowed. Thus, state and local
governments that in the past had tried to bypass the Voting Rights
Acts requirement of equal treatment were forced to adopt fair voting
Much has changed in the US since the 1950s and 1960s, both
socially and demographically. The question now is whether those same
powerful federal controls deemed necessary to end blatant Jim Crow-
era discrimination remain an appropriate use of federal power 40 to
50 years later. …