U.S. Supreme Court maintains voting rights protection

Supreme-Court.jpgOn Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court avoided ruling on the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, but it did agree to exempt a small utility district in Texas from this key provision. Section 5, also known as "preclearance," requires states or local governments with histories of racial discrimination in voting to attain Justice Department approval before making any changes in election law.As NPR reported:
In an 8-1 ruling, the court said that the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 in Austin, Texas, can opt out of the advance approval requirement, reversing a lower federal court that found it could not.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the court, said the larger issue of whether dramatic civil rights gains means the advance approval requirement is no longer necessary "is a difficult constitutional question we do not answer today."
Earlier this year a case was brought by the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 in Texas, challenging the clearance requirement and calling the provision an unwarranted and unconstitutional intrusion on states' rights. Legal observers called the Texas case a major challenge to the landmark VRA and a challenge to whether or not the federal government should still have power to supervise state election practices.

Many legal experts predicted the Court was on the verge of gutting the VRA, but as the ScotusBlog underscored, the justices were able to interpret Section 5 in a way that saved it, while also avoiding the major constitutional questions raised in the case. The Court ruling now allows all local units of government to be given the option to bail out of the requirement that they get federal approval for any changes in their election laws or methods.

Justice Clarence Thomas was the only dissenting vote, and he called Section 5 unconstitutional. "The violence, intimidation and subterfuge that led Congress to pass Section 5 and this court to uphold it no longer remains," Thomas said.

Section 5 of the VRA was passed as a temporary measure, set to expire after five years, but Congress has since reauthorized the provision four times, the last being an extension of 25 years in 2006. Nine states -- Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia -- and counties in several other states are covered by the provision. Voting rights groups and civil rights attorneys defend Section 5, arguing that the provision remains a critical piece of legislation protecting minority rights in an America that is far from a post-racial country.

Civil rights groups like the the Lawyers' Committee were pleased that the Court left Section 5 in place. They point out that the most recent DOJ ruling surrounding Georgia's voter screening program once again proves the vital importance and relevance of Section 5. As the Lawyer's Committee said in a recent press release:
The rejection of discriminatory voter registration verification programs in Georgia is the most recent example of the continued importance of Section 5. During last year's elections, the Lawyers' Committee's Election Protection leaders discovered that the state had implemented procedures that were erroneously flagging the registrations of thousands of predominantly minority voters as ineligible. The Lawyers' Committee and its partners immediately filed suit against the Georgia Secretary of State because the changes had not received Section 5 preclearance. A three-judge district court panel blocked the implementation of the procedures. In May the Department of Justice rejected Georgia's voting rules because the state could not prove that the procedures did not have a discriminatory effect on minority voters.