June 22, 2009 / 3:44 PM / 10 years ago

Supreme Court avoids major voting rights ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court building seen in Washington May 20, 2009. REUTERS/Molly Riley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court declined on Monday to rule on the constitutionality of part of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act which sought to protect minorities in states with a history of racial discrimination.

The nation’s top court instead ruled on a more narrow constitutional question, deciding that political subdivisions within a state can apply to be exempted from the Act.

The 8-1 ruling, spurred by a Texas municipal utility district’s challenge, could result in other government bodies in 16 largely Southern states seeking to be free of the Act’s requirements.

Congress adopted the Voting Rights Act at the height of the U.S. civil rights movement in a bid to make it easier for millions of blacks and other minorities to vote.

Congress overwhelmingly voted to extend it in 2006 for 25 years, with then-President George W. Bush signing it into law. The central provision required approval from the Justice Department or a federal court.

Writing the court’s main opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said the Texas utility district should be eligible to seek an exemption from provisions requiring federal approval for any changes to local elections.

The court held that the Texas district could apply for exemption even though it does not register voters, like states, counties, parishes and other sub-units that were the primary targets of the Act.

Roberts said the court did not address the overall constitutional question at this time because it was an important issue that required further study.

The constitutional challenge had been one of the most closely watched cases of the Supreme Court’s term.

Editing by Paul Simao

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