WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court said Friday it will review a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that has been the federal government's most forceful tool in protecting minority rights at the polls. The decision ensures that race and civil rights will be the hallmark of the current Supreme Court term.
The challenge to Section 5 of the 1964 Voting Rights Act was launched two years ago, and the court added it to its docket just days after an energized minority electorate played a critical role in the re-election of President Barack Obama, the nation's first African-American president.
The justices said they would decide, in Shelby County v. Holder, whether Congress exceeded its authority in 2006 when it reauthorized a requirement that states and localities with a history of discrimination, most of them in the South, receive federal approval before making any changes to their voting laws.
Three years ago, the court expressed concern about subjecting some states to stricter standards than others using a formula developed decades ago. But justices sidestepped the constitutional question and found a narrow way to decide that case.
Friday's decision to accept the challenge from Shelby County, Ala., is the court's second major case this term involving race. Last month, the justices heard a challenge to the University of Texas' admissions policy that could redefine or eliminate the use of affirmative action in higher-education admissions.
This month, the court will decide whether to take up another civil rights issue: same-sex marriage. Two appeals courts have declared unconstitutional the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal recognition of same-sex marriages performed in states where it is legal. The court must also decide whether to intervene in a decision by federal courts to overturn California's Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to define marriage as only between a man and a woman.
The Section 5 requirements were passed during the darkest days of the civil rights struggle, paving the way for expanded voting rights for African-Americans and greatly increasing the number of minority officeholders.
But critics say that the method for selecting the places subject to the special supervision -- which include nine states and parts of seven others -- is outdated. They say Congress should have spent more time investigating whether those classifications still made sense.
"The America that elected and re-elected Barack Obama ... is far different than when the Voting Rights Act was first enacted in 1965," said Edward Blum of the Project on Fair Representation, which brought the challenge. "Congress unwisely reauthorized a bill that is stuck in a Jim Crow-era time warp."
But the law's defenders said it has proved its worth just in this election. Courts put on hold redistricting changes in Texas and voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina that they said would dilute minority rights. Courts also forced changes in Florida's new early-voting procedures.
A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit voted in the spring to uphold the 2006 reauthorization, which passed with lopsided votes in both houses of Congress and was signed by President George W. Bush.
U.S. Circuit Judge David S. Tatel wrote that the judicial branch had no reason to second-guess Congress' decision. "Congress drew reasonable conclusions from the extensive evidence it gathered," he wrote.
Conservative legal activists and Republican attorneys general from some of the covered states launched challenges to the law after the Supreme Court in 2009 raised questions about its continued constitutionality.
"Things have changed in the South," Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in that opinion, which put aside for the time being the constitutional question. "Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels."
Judge Tatel concluded that the 2006 extension met two requirements identified by the Supreme Court: that the burdens imposed by the act were justified by "current needs," and that the discrimination "evil" that Section 5 was meant to eliminate is still concentrated in the jurisdictions singled out.