WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court Monday reached a compromise on the Voting Rights Act that allowed it to sidestep the question of whether a key provision of the landmark civil rights legislation remains constitutional.
Instead, the court decided that all political subdivisions covered by the provision have the right to prove that they do not discriminate, and thus would not need to have federal authorities approve election law changes.
That provision, called Section 5, is the heart of the act, and applies to Virginia, Alaska, Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas and parts of seven other states, including Florida.
Civil rights activists had braced themselves for the court to find Section 5 unconstitutional. But the court refused to do that on an 8-1 vote with only Justice Clarence Thomas, the court's only African-American member, going that far.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who at oral arguments had been sharply critical in his questioning of government lawyers who defended the 2006 decision by Congress to extend the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for another 25 years, said the court did not need to settle the larger issue.
Roberts made clear he had questions about the sweep of the extension of the act. "Things have changed in the South," he wrote. "Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels."
Civil rights groups applauded the decision. "It's fair to say this case was brought to tear the heart out of the Voting Rights Act, and today that effort failed," said Debo Adegbile, lead attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
The court said the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 in Austin, Texas, could apply to opt out of the federal approval requirement, reversing a lower federal court that ruled it could not.
The court made it clear that all of the 12,000 political subdivisions covered by the act had the ability to convince a federal court or the attorney general that they should be free from the restrictions.