WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday gutted a core part of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act and challenged Congress to come up with a replacement plan to protect blacks and other minorities in places where discrimination still persists rather than target former slaveholding states in the South.
In a 5-4 ruling with the court's conservatives in the majority, the justices ruled that Congress had used outdated facts in continuing to force nine states, mainly in the South, to get federal approval for voting rule changes affecting blacks and other minorities.
The court ruled in favor of officials from Shelby County, Alabama, by declaring unconstitutional a section of the law - most recently updated by Congress in 2006 - that set the formula that decides which states and locales with a history of racial discrimination need federal approval to change voting laws.
President Barack Obama expressed disappointment with the ruling and asked Congress to pass legislation "to ensure every American has equal access to the polls."
"Today's decision invalidating one of (the law's) core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent," Obama, the first black president, said in a statement.
The ruling upended legal protections for minority voters that were a key achievement of the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s led by Martin Luther King Jr. The Voting Rights Act as a whole was enacted to broadly prohibit poll taxes, literacy tests and other measures common in states with a history of slavery that prevented black people from voting.
But, writing for the court's majority, conservative Chief Justice John Roberts said that America is not the country that it was a half century ago when the Voting Rights Act was passed to end a century of attempts by former slaveholding states to block blacks from voting.
"Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions," Roberts wrote.
But Democrats have accused Republicans at the state level in recent years of enacting a series of measures intended to suppress the vote of minority groups likely to support Democratic candidates.
Just last week, the Supreme Court struck down an Arizona law that required people registering to vote in federal elections to show proof of citizenship, a victory for activists who said it discouraged Native Americans and Latinos from voting.
Tuesday's decision placed the burden on Congress - sharply divided along party lines to the point of virtual gridlock - to pass any new voting rights law like the one sought by Obama.
'I HAVE A DREAM' REVISITED
Civil rights activists, looking ahead to August's 50th anniversary of King's famous march on Washington, hoped Tuesday's ruling would revive the spirit of that event and prompt Congress to act. It was before a massive crowd in front of the Lincoln Memorial that King gave his era-defining "I have a dream" speech.
Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, predicted a "massive mobilization" for the anniversary.
Roberts said the formula that Congress used to determine what states and locales should be covered by the provision relating to approval for voting changes when it most recently re-authorized the law should have been updated.
"Congress did not use the record it compiled to shape a coverage formula grounded in current conditions," he wrote. "It instead re-enacted a formula based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day."
The coverage formula therefore violates the sovereignty of the affected states under the U.S. Constitution, Roberts said.
Congress could pass a new version, but it would have to reflect "current conditions," he added.
The issue of voting rights remains prominent in the United States. During the 2012 presidential election campaign, judges nationwide heard challenges to new voter identification laws and redrawn voting districts, with some blocked before the election.
In February, Obama, a Democrat, decried barriers to voting in America and announced a commission to address voting issues.
Civil rights activists fear that the ruling could lead to an increase in attempts to deter minorities from voting. They said 31 proposals made by covered jurisdictions to modify election laws had been blocked by the Justice Department since the law was re-enacted in 2006.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, accused the Supreme Court of leaving "millions of minority voters without the mechanism that has allowed them to stop voting discrimination before it occurs."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, on Tuesday pledged to move quickly to try to restore voting rights protections after the ruling.
"I intend to take immediate action to ensure that we will have a strong and reconstituted Voting Rights Act that protects against racial discrimination in voting," Leahy said.
Republicans were largely silent on the court's ruling. Neither House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner nor Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, had any immediate comment.
The court struck down Section 4 of the law, which describes the coverage formula, and not Section 5, known as the preclearance provision, which is the general requirement that the covered states get approval from the Justice Department or a federal court before making election-law changes.
In her dissenting opinion on behalf of the liberal wing of the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Section 5 is now "immobilized" without a working coverage formula.
Congress approached the 2006 re-authorization "with great care and seriousness," she added. "The same cannot be said of the court's opinion today."
The nine fully covered states under the provisions of the law at issue were Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
Tuesday's ruling left intact Section 2 of the law, broadly prohibiting intentional discrimination in the voting arena.
The decision is likely to have an immediate impact on states previously covered by the preclearance requirements that are battling federal oversight.
Texas had been unsuccessfully fighting federal rejection of its most recent congressional redistricting and voter identification laws, both of which were rejected by federal judges. The high court's ruling means Texas would no longer need to seek that approval, although there is other litigation taking place over the redistricting plan.
"Texas may now implement the will of the people without being subject to outdated and unnecessary oversight and the overreach of federal power," said Republican Texas Governor Rick Perry.
The case is Shelby County v. Holder, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-96.