WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said Friday it will consider eliminating the government's most potent weapon against racial discrimination at polling places since the 1960s. The court acted three days after a diverse coalition of voters propelled President Barack Obama to a second term in the White House.
With a look at affirmative action in higher education already on the agenda, the court is putting a spotlight on race by re-examining the ongoing necessity of laws and programs aimed at giving racial minorities access to major areas of American life from which they once were systematically excluded.
"This is a term in which many core pillars of civil rights and pathways to opportunity hang in the balance," said Debo Adegbile, acting president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
In an order Friday, the justices agreed to hear a constitutional challenge to the part of the landmark Voting Rights Act that requires all or parts of 16 states with a history of discrimination in voting to get federal approval before making any changes in the way they hold elections.
The case probably will be argued in February or March, with a decision expected by late June.
The advance approval, or preclearance requirement, was adopted in the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to give federal officials a potent tool to defeat persistent efforts to keep blacks from voting.
The requirement currently applies to five counties in Florida: Hillsborough, Collier, Hardee, Hendry and Monroe.
The other states are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia and certain counties in in California, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota, and some local jurisdictions in Michigan and New Hampshire. Coverage has been triggered by past discrimination not only against blacks, but also against American Indians, Asian-Americans, Alaskan Natives and Hispanics.
Before these locations can change their voting rules, they must get approval either from the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division or from the federal district court in Washington.
The appeal from Shelby County, Ala., near Birmingham, says state and local governments covered by the law have made significant progress and no longer should be forced to live under oversight from Washington.
"The America that elected and re-elected Barack Obama as its first African-American president is far different than when the Voting Rights Act was first enacted in 1965. Congress unwisely reauthorized a bill that is stuck in a Jim Crow-era time warp. It is unconstitutional," said Edward Blum, director of the not-for-profit Project on Fair Representation, which is funding the challenges to the voting rights law and affirmative action.
But defenders of the law said there is a continuing need for it and pointed to the Justice Department's efforts to block voter ID laws in South Carolina and Texas, as well as a redistricting plan in Texas.