WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday by a vote of five to four along traditional conservative-liberal lines struck down a key provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant civil rights laws ever passed by Congress.
The Voting Rights Act, landmark legislation that outlawed discriminatory voting practices in the United States, was enacted in response to state laws that had been responsible for the widespread disenfranchisement of African Americans.
In an opinion by Chief Justice John G. Roberts that was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Samuel Alito, with Clarence Thomas writing a concurring opinion, the Court did not invalidate the principle that preclearance can be required but found the law relies on 40-year old data that does not reflect the racial changes that have occurred in much of the country.
“Some may think that the right to vote is strong and well-defended everywhere,” said Bill Moyers, a journalist and president of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, who served as White House Press Secretary in the Johnson administration from 1965 to 1967. “But in reality, our most basic American freedom is imperiled across the country — often when it stands in the way of political ambition.”
The law was enacted in 1965 to address glaring problems, primarily in southern states where African-Americans were routinely blocked from voting. The law sets out standards for close federal monitoring of voting and has been reauthorized by Congress several times since.
This latest Supreme Court decision strikes down a part of the law that sets the formula for which states and localities must make changes in voting procedures. But the high court did not strike down another section of the law that requires states and localities to get pre-clearance from the federal government for any voting changes they may want to make.
Civil rights groups were disheartened by the ruling.
“We are deeply disappointed by the court’s decision today,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, who is with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and spoke to reporters in front of the Supreme Court. “Make no mistake about what has happened. The court has decided that it stands in a better position than Congress to determine how to protect voting discrimination.”
The Supreme Court decision leaves it up to Congress to change the part of the law that it finds out of date.
The White House issued a statement that said President Barack Obama was disappointed by the decision and called on Congress to ensure all Americans have equal access to the polls.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the law remains a useful tool to block discriminatory voting practices.
“These problems have not been consigned to history,” he said. “They continue to exist. Their effects are real. They are of today, not yesterday, and they corrode the foundations of our democracy.”
Conservative groups welcomed the high court decision.
“Back in 1965, an average black man in many areas in the United States couldn’t vote because there were things that were put in their way and various impediments to their voting,” said David Almasi, executive director of the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington. “Now we have a black president and we have in those same areas that were considered discriminatory back in 1965, we have black office holders that are very common. We live in a much different world that needs to be figured into things.”
Almasi is also skeptical that Congress will move quickly to update the Voting Rights Act given that the House of Representatives is controlled by Republicans.
“We are looking at some potential problems because it is a hot issue and Congress tends to not want to deal with the hot issues,” he said. “I think people need to realize that it is not the same world as it was back in 1965.”
The voting rights case was one of the most closely-watched cases of this Supreme Court term. The high court will close out its annual session on Wednesday with two more highly-anticipated rulings on same sex marriage.
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