U.S. Justices Question Pillar of '65 Voting Act ; Conservative Members Skeptical of Need to Retain Civil-Rights Oversight

Article excerpt

The challenge to the law asserts that making voting procedures subject to federal approval had outlived its usefulness and that it imposed an unwarranted badge of shame on the affected jurisdictions.

A central provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 may be in peril, judging from tough questioning from the U.S. Supreme Court's more conservative members.

In a vivid argument Wednesday in which the lawyers and justices drew varying lessons from the legacies of slavery, the Civil War and the civil rights movement, the court's conservative wing suggested that the modern South had outgrown its troubled past and that the provision -- which requires nine states, mostly in the South, to get U.S. government permission before changing voting procedures -- was no longer justified.

Justice Antonin Scalia called the provision a "perpetuation of racial entitlement." Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked a skeptical question about whether people in the South were more racist than those in the North. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy asked how much longer Alabama must live "under the trusteeship of the United States government."

The court's more liberal members, citing data and history, said Congress remained entitled to make the judgment that the provision was still needed in the covered jurisdictions.

The question at the heart of the argument Wednesday was whether Congress, in reauthorizing the provision for 25 years in 2006, was entitled to use a formula based on historic practices and voting data from elections held decades ago.

Should the court strike down the law's central provision, it would be easier for lawmakers in the nine states to enact the kind of laws Republicans in several states have recently advocated, including tighter identification standards. It would also give those states more flexibility to move polling places and redraw legislative districts.

The four members of the court's liberal wing argued in favor of Congress's authority under the law, which passed the Senate unanimously and the House overwhelmingly, by a vote of 390 to 33, in 2006. …

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