WASHINGTON — A deeply divided U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday halted enforcement of the federal government’s most potent tool to stop voting discrimination, saying it does not reflect racial progress. President Barack Obama, the country’s first black chief executive, said he was “deeply disappointed” with the decision.
The 5-4 ruling effectively puts an end to the requirement that has been used, mainly in the South, to open up polling places to minority voters since it was enacted in 1965 — a turbulent time when it was not unusual for blacks in some parts of the country to be essentially barred from voting and some civil rights activists on the issue were killed.
The landmark Voting Rights Act requirement, considered an emergency federal response when it was put in place, has determined which states and localities must get Washington’s approval for proposed election changes. That ends unless Congress can come up with a new formula that Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for a conservative majority, said meets “current conditions” in the U.S.
It was the most dramatic decision so far as the high court makes a broad re-examination of the necessity of laws and programs aimed at giving racial minorities access to major areas of life from which they once were systematically excluded. Census estimates look ahead to whites becoming a minority in the U.S. in coming decades.
Rights groups and the dissenting liberal justices on the court warned that discrimination still exists.
“The Supreme Court has effectively gutted one of the nation’s most important and effective civil rights laws. Minority voters in places with a record of discrimination are now at greater risk of being disenfranchised than they have been in decades,” said Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Obama, reelected last year with the strong support of black and Hispanic voters, called on Congress to reinvigorate the law.
The advance approval requirement was put into the law to give federal officials a potent tool to defeat persistent efforts to keep blacks from voting. But coverage also has been triggered by past discrimination against American Indians, Asian-Americans, Alaska Natives and Hispanics.
The requirement for federal approval for proposed election changes currently applies to the states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. It also covers certain counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota, and some local jurisdictions in Michigan.
Tuesday’s ruling came in a challenge brought by Shelby County, Alabama, a suburb of Birmingham.
— one of the Southern cities where the civil rights struggle played out in the 1960s.
The lawsuit acknowledged that the measure had been appropriate and necessary to counteract decades of state-sponsored discrimination in voting, but it asked whether there was any end in sight for a provision that intrudes on states’ rights to conduct elections.
Officials from the South had mixed reactions Tuesday.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, the only black lawmaker in Mississippi’s congressional delegation, said the ruling “guts the most critical portion of the most important civil rights legislation of our time.”
Alabama Gov. Bentley, a Republican, pointed to his state’s legislature — 27 per cent black, similar to Alabama’s overall population — as a sign of the state’s progress.