Justices question Voting Rights Act
by Mark Sherman
Associated Press Writer
February 28, 2013 12:03 AM | 991 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), second from right, and Rev. Jesse Jackson, right, greet people waiting outside the Supreme Court in Washington on Wednesday to listen to arguments in a case to decide the fate of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.<br>The Associated Press
Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), second from right, and Rev. Jesse Jackson, right, greet people waiting outside the Supreme Court in Washington on Wednesday to listen to arguments in a case to decide the fate of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.
The Associated Press
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The Supreme Court’s conservative justices voiced deep skepticism Wednesday about a section of a landmark civil rights law that has helped millions of Americans exercise their right to vote.

In an ominous note for supporters of the key provision of the Voting Rights Act, Justice Anthony Kennedy both acknowledged the measure’s vital role in fighting discrimination and suggested that other important laws in U.S. history had run their course. “Times change,” Kennedy said during the fast-paced, 70-minute argument.

Kennedy’s views are likely to prevail on the closely divided court, and he tends to side with his more conservative colleagues on matters of race.

The court’s liberals and conservatives engaged in a sometimes tense back-and-forth over whether there is an ongoing need in 2013 for the part of the voting rights law that requires states with a history of discrimination, mainly in the Deep South, to get approval before making changes in the way elections are held.

The requirement currently applies to the states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. It also covers certain counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota, and some local jurisdictions in Michigan and New Hampshire. Coverage has been triggered by past discrimination not only against blacks, but also against American Indians, Asian-Americans, Alaska Natives and Hispanics.

Justice Antonin Scalia called the law a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.”

Chief Justice John Roberts, a vocal skeptic of the use of race in all areas of public life, cited a variety of statistics that showed starker racial disparities in some aspects of voting in Massachusetts than in Mississippi. Then he asked the government’s top Supreme Court lawyer whether the Obama administration thinks “the citizens in the South are more racist than citizens in the North?”

The answer from Solicitor General Donald Verrilli was no.

The question, and others like it from the conservative justices, largely echoed the doubts they first expressed four years ago in a similar case that ended without resolving the constitutionality of the latest renewal of the voting rights law, in 2006. They questioned whether there remain appreciable differences between the locations covered by the law and those that are not. They also wondered whether there was any end in sight for a provision that intrudes on states’ rights to conduct elections and which was regarded as an emergency response to decades of state-sponsored discrimination in voting, despite the Fifteenth Amendment’s guarantee of the vote for black Americans.

The provision shifted the legal burden and required governments that were covered to demonstrate that their proposed changes would not discriminate.
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