(Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court’s voting rights ruling on Tuesday focused on the part of federal law that requires certain states and municipalities with a history of racial discrimination, mostly in the South, to get approval from the Justice Department or a federal court before making electoral changes.
Congress re-authorized the provision - Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act - in 2006, prompting challengers to begin filing lawsuits.
The provision was intended to make sure new voting requirements do not hurt blacks and other minorities. Currently, Section 5 and the coverage formula found in Section 4 of the law apply to the following nine states as a whole: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
Here are some important developments leading up to the high court’s decision.
July - Congress re-authorizes Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Congressional sponsors extensively document incidents of racial bias at the polls nationwide and reject attempts to update the decades-old provision, found in Section 4, that sets the criteria for which locales are automatically covered. President George W. Bush signs the law on July 27, 2006.
August - Within days of the re-authorization, the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 brings a lawsuit against the federal government. It contends Congress lacked sufficient evidence of recent discrimination to justify Section 5’s intrusion on state sovereignty. Texas lawyers coordinate the lawsuit with aid from Edward Blum, a conservative advocate and former investment banker who helps finance legal challenges to racial policies.
June - The Supreme Court sidesteps the question of Section 5’s constitutionality when it rules in the case of Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder. The court says the utility district, which had a clean record under voting-rights law in modern times, should be exempt from Section 5. In an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court warns that the provision may be struck down in the near future. “Things have changed in the South,” he writes, as he suggests the provision “may no longer be needed or constitutional.”
April - Officials from Shelby County, Alabama, pick up the issue and sue the U.S. Justice Department, claiming the 2006 re-authorization exceeded Congress’s power to enforce the right to vote. For this new test case, Blum had scouted out the county, covered by Section 5 since the 1960s and ineligible for an exemption because of recent discriminatory incidents.
May - The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rules against Shelby County, saying Congress had solid grounds for re-authorizing Section 5 and declaring, “Racial discrimination in voting (is) one of the gravest evils that Congress can seek to redress.”
November - The Supreme Court accepts Shelby County’s petition over opposition from the Justice Department. The court says it will address whether Congress’s re-authorization of Section 5 under the pre-existing Section 4 coverage formula for which locales are automatically covered exceeded its authority under the 14th and 15th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantee racial equality and the right to vote.
February - Supreme Court justices hear oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder and appear sharply divided over whether the law treating states differently based on past discrimination is constitutional.
June - The Supreme Court strikes down the Section 4 coverage formula undergirding Section 5. By 5-4 vote, the justices rule that Congress used obsolete criteria in continuing to force the nine covered states to get federal approval for voting rule changes affecting blacks and other minorities.
Reporting by Joan Biskupic; Editing by Howard Goller and Will Dunham