Supreme Court to decide if part of Voting Rights Act is outdated
The new voting-rights case, along with a pending decision on college affirmative action, will make this year's Supreme Court term a momentous one for civil rights.
Tribune Washington bureau
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said Friday that it will consider lifting a legal cloud that has hung over the South since the 1960s and strike down part of the landmark Voting Rights Act as outdated and unfair.
The justices agreed to hear an Alabama county's challenge to the provision that requires much of the South, including its cities and counties, to get advance approval from the federal government before making changes in election laws or voting rules.
The new voting-rights case, along with a pending decision on college affirmative action, will make this year's court term a momentous one for civil rights. The common theme in both cases is whether a 1960s-era remedy for racial discrimination is still needed and still justified.
The court's conservative justices have made clear they are troubled by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which puts the South under special scrutiny.
The Alabama case to be heard next year does not contest the constitutionality of the law, which makes it illegal to enforce any voting procedure or election law that discriminates against voters because of their race.
The justices had considered the challenge to the Voting Rights Act in several of their weekly closed-door meetings. After Friday's conference, the first since the election, they said they had voted to hear the appeal.
Three years ago, Chief Justice John Roberts served notice in another case that time may be running out for the "pre-clearance" rule.
"Things have changed in the South," Roberts said then, noting blacks now register and vote there at about the same percentage as whites. And several of the Southern states that are under the special scrutiny of the law have a higher percentage of blacks who vote than in Northern states, which are not covered.
Roberts also questioned the idea of singling out some states for different treatment under federal law. "Our historic tradition (is) that all the states enjoy equal sovereignty," he said.
In 2009, the chief justice stopped short of throwing out the law's pre-clearance requirement. Instead, he fashioned a narrow, compromise ruling that allowed a Texas municipal water district to "bail out" of the Voting Rights Act.
But his opinion set the stage for a future decision declaring Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to be an unconstitutional infringement on states' rights.
That prospect grew much larger Friday, when the justices voted to hear a frontal attack on the law from Shelby County, Ala.
The case could also put the court in conflict with Congress, President Obama and the Justice Department. In 2006, Congress in a near unanimous vote extended the Voting Rights Act and its "pre-clearance" rule for another 25 years.
In another case, the court agreed to decide whether it's legal for police to collect DNA samples from people under arrest, a case that could have nationwide implications on the question of privacy versus public safety.
All 50 states now collect DNA from those who are convicted of felonies.
But in the past decade, more than half of the states have gone further and require the collection of DNA from people who are arrested for serious crimes.
The justices will review a Maryland court decision, Maryland v. King, that effectively barred the warrantless collection of genetic material from suspects who have not been convicted of a crime.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.