January 9, 2009 / 7:58 PM / 10 years ago

Supreme court to decide voting rights law challenge

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court said on Friday it would consider a challenge to a central provision of the 44-year-old voting rights law aimed at preventing states and local governments from making it harder for minorities to vote.

Voters fill their ballots during the U.S. presidential election in West Hollywood, California November 4, 2008. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Congress initially adopted the Voting Rights Act, an historic piece of U.S. civil rights legislation, in 1965. It overwhelmingly extended it in 2006 for 25 more years, with President George W. Bush signing it into law.

At issue is a provision at the heart of the law that requires states or local governments with histories of racial discrimination to get federal approval before making any changes in election procedures.

Nine states — Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia — and counties in several other states are covered by the provision at issue in the case, the Justice Department said.

The Supreme Court in four separate rulings has upheld that part of the law, but the court in recent years has become more conservative with the addition of Bush’s two appointees, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.

Soon after Congress extended the law, a Texas municipal utility district sued and argued it should be exempt from the law.

It also said the law should be struck down as unconstitutional because Congress lacked sufficient evidence of racial discrimination in voting to justify the intrusion on the municipality.

But a three-judge federal court rejected the challenge to the law. It ruled that racial discrimination in voting persists and that Congress acted appropriately when it extended the law.

Attorneys for the municipal utility district appealed to the Supreme Court, calling the law “overly intrusive” and saying that it “lacks any meaningful time or scope limitations.”

“The America that has elected Barack Obama as its first African-American president is far different than when” the law was first enacted in 1965, they said.

U.S. Justice Department and civil rights attorneys defended the law and urged the nation’s high court to uphold it.

Department attorneys said Congress collected extensive evidence demonstrating that discrimination against minority voters continues in the parts of the country covered by the law. They said the provision at issue remains an effective way of preventing such discrimination.

In another case involving racial issues, the high court agreed to decide whether a city can disregard the results of a civil service exam because it yielded too many qualified applicants of one race and not enough of another race.

The court agreed to hear an appeal by 19 white firefighters and one Hispanic firefighter who had sued the city of New Haven, Connecticut, in 2004.

They said they would have been promoted if the city had not disregarded tests for lieutenant and captain because too few blacks had scored high enough to move up in rank.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the cases in April, with a ruling expected by the end of June.

Editing by David Alexander and Vicki Allen

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