WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Supreme Court conservatives on Wednesday sharply criticized a central part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that is aimed at more than a dozen states with a history of racial discrimination.
It is the second major race case heard by the justices after Barack Obama became the nation’s first black president.
The justices seemed split along conservative and liberal lines in considering a provision applying to all or parts of 16 states, mostly in the South. It requires them to get federal government approval before changing their voting procedures.
Congress adopted the Voting Rights Act, an historic piece of U.S. civil rights legislation, to make it easier for millions of blacks and other minorities to exercise their right to vote.
Congress extended it in 2006 for 25 years, with then-President George W. Bush signing it into law.
Last week the justices considered whether race still can be used as a factor for job promotions and hirings, an issue that could affect millions of employers nationwide.
Opponents of the voting rights law argue that the protections for minority voters are no longer needed after more than 40 years of progress, and they cite Obama’s election as evidence of how America has changed since 1965.
Defenders of the measure say minority voters still face discrimination in some local elections.
The legal challenge was brought by a Texas municipal utility district. It says it should be exempt from the law and that it should be struck down.
‘GREAT DISPARITY IN TREATMENT’
The Supreme Court in four separate previous rulings has upheld the part of the law at issue in the case. But the court in recent years has become more conservative with the addition of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.
Roberts questioned whether the law would continue for too long. “I mean, at some point, it begins to look like the idea is that this is going to go on forever,” he said.
Alito asked why Congress did not extend the law to the entire country. He called it odd the law covered the Bronx section of New York City, but not other boroughs like Brooklyn and Queens.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who often holds the decisive vote on the closely divided court, appeared troubled by the law.
Kennedy said defenders of the law have a “very substantial burden” in showing the continuing need for the “great disparity in treatment” between states that are covered and those that are not covered by the law.
Obama administration lawyer Neal Katyal argued the law should be upheld.
“After 16,000 pages of testimony, 21 different hearings over 10 months, Congress looked at the evidence and determined their work was not done,” he said.
The court’s liberals expressed support for the law.
“I don’t understand ... how you can maintain as a basis for this suit that things have radically changed,” Justice David Souter told an attorney who argued against the law.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Congress, in extending the law, referred to how discrimination in voting rights cases initially was blatant and overt, but now is more subtle and difficult to detect.
A ruling is expected by the end of June.
Editing by Xavier Briand
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