(Reuters) - The Supreme Court agreed on Friday to review a legal challenge to the Voting Rights Act, a landmark law adopted in 1965 to protect African-American voters who had faced decades of discrimination at the polls.
The court's decision comes just days after a presidential election in which Latino and African-American voters played a big role in re-electing Democratic President Barack Obama, reflecting a basic shift in national demographics.
The high court accepted an appeal brought by Shelby County, Alabama, challenging a core provision of the act that requires nine states and several local governments with a history of bias to get federal permission to change their election procedures.
Arguments in the case will likely be heard by the Supreme Court in early 2013, with a decision expected by the end of June.
Some justices on the nine-member court, including Chief Justice John Roberts, have signaled in earlier cases discomfort with policies that draw distinctions based on race.
In a 2009 Voting Rights Act case, the Supreme Court avoided ruling on the law's constitutionality. The court suggested that the federal "preclearance" requirement may no longer be needed or constitutional. Roberts, dissenting from a 2006 voting-rights decision, criticized what he called "a sordid business, this divvying us up by race."
Congress passed the Voting Rights Act after a watershed episode in Alabama on March 7, 1965, when state troopers clubbed and tear-gassed peaceful civil rights marchers in Selma.
Now, officials from Shelby County, Alabama, are trying to lift the screening requirement that today covers mainly southern jurisdictions.
Edward Blum, director of the Project on Fair Representation, which opposes race-based policies and spearheaded the suit, welcomed the court's decision to take the case on Friday.
"The America that elected and reelected Barack Obama as its first African-American president is far different than when the Voting Rights Act was first enacted in 1965. Congress unwisely reauthorized a bill that is stuck in a Jim Crow-era time warp," he said in a statement.
However, Civil rights advocates say that if Shelby County succeeds in eliminating the federal screening requirement, that would clear the way for states with a history of discrimination to pass measures like voter identification laws that make it harder for minorities to vote.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, in reaction to Friday's order, warned of persisting threats to minority voter access and equality.
"Given the extensive voter suppression we've seen around the country, I think Section 5's relevance could not be clearer," said the group's litigation director, Elise Boddie.
Shelby County sued in 2010, challenging Section 5 of the law, which demands that places with a history of discrimination obtain approval from the Justice Department or a special court for new district lines, ballot rules or other election changes.
The federal screening aims to ensure that any proposed changes do not impair voting rights based on race. It covers all or part of 16 states, most of them in the South.
The suit contends that the preclearance requirement is a federal encroachment on state sovereignty that is no longer needed after more than 40 years of fighting racial discrimination. A separate Voting Rights Act provision, not challenged here, covers intentional discrimination at the polls.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the federal preclearance requirement in a 2-1 decision in May, saying Congress had enough evidence of recent racial discrimination to justify reauthorizing the law in 2006.
Racial discrimination in voting is "one of the gravest evils that Congress can seek to redress," appeals court judge David Tatel declared for the court majority.
While the appeals court noted the increasing number of African Americans serving in elected office, it also pointed to continued racial disparities in voter registration and turnout in Virginia and South Carolina.
Shelby County is represented by Bert Rein, the same lawyer who argued before the court in October against the University of Texas' affirmative action policy favoring minority applicants.
"Things have changed in the South," Rein said in the petition, quoting a 2009 Supreme Court decision. "Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels."
In Shelby County's petition, Rein also argued that the statute's coverage formula was based on data more than 35 years old, and that discrimination no longer existed in the places singled out for screening.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the Supreme Court's decision to review the law.
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli had urged, in a brief for the Justice Department, that the justices not take up the case. He noted that Congress, before reauthorizing the law, had documented extensive voter discrimination in the jurisdictions covered. He said the Supreme Court had on multiple occasions upheld Section 5 before Republican President George W. Bush signed the reauthorization in 2006.
Seven of the states covered by the screening requirement backed Shelby County in briefs filed with the court: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, South Dakota and Texas. Louisiana and Mississippi were not among them. Mississippi joined a friend-of-the-court brief defending Section 5 before the court of appeals, saying the law has produced measurable benefits for minority representation.
The Supreme Court did not take any action on a similar challenge out of Kinston, North Carolina.
The case is Shelby County, Alabama, v. Holder, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-96.
Reporting by Terry Baynes in New York; Additional reporting by Joan Biskupic in Washington; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Peter Cooney and David Brunnstrom