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US Supreme Court Reviews Key Civil Rights Law


Voting rights activists gather in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington Feb. 27, 2013.

Voting rights activists gather in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington Feb. 27, 2013.

A key civil rights law from the 1960’s that helped ensure minorities could vote is now under review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the midst of the struggle for civil rights, particularly in the states of the Deep South where racial discrimination was widespread. At that time, local officials were known for making it difficult for African-Americans to vote.

A key part of the law known as Section 5 gives the federal government the power to pre-approve or block changes in voting procedures put forward by states and local governments in areas where African-Americans historically faced enormous difficulties in voting.

Under the U.S. Constitution, states have most of the power when it comes to running elections.

The law has been re-authorized by Congress several times, most recently in 2006. But now some conservative groups and officials from some of the states affected by the law say the statute is outdated and no longer necessary.

Butch Ellis is county attorney for Shelby County, Alabama, which is challenging a key part of the Voting Rights Act. He spoke to reporters outside the high court.

“They have made great strides over the last 48 years," said Ellis. "I have been the county attorney since 1964. I was 24-years old when we came under Section 5 [of the law]. I am 73 (as of) last weekend and we are still under the same formula, none of which has applied to us in many, many, many years.”

Some of the more conservative justices on the Supreme Court seemed to express skepticism about the law during oral arguments on Wednesday. They question whether the remedy Congress agreed to in 1965 is still warranted nearly 50 years later.

The Voting Rights Act was a product of the bloody struggle for civil rights in the southern U.S. in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.

Civil rights groups and the Obama administration defended the law in oral arguments before the high court. They acknowledge some progress on race relations has been made in the states covered by the law in the past several decades. But they also argue the law is still a useful tool to ensure that states and local jurisdictions protect the right of all Americans to vote, regardless of race.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis (L) and the Rev. Al Sharpton confer during a voter's rights rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, Feb. 27, 2013.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis (L) and the Rev. Al Sharpton confer during a voter's rights rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, Feb. 27, 2013.

Congressman John Lewis, a Democrat from Georgia, was badly beaten in 1965 while leading a march for voting rights in Alabama. He spoke in front of the Supreme Court.

“We have come a great distance since then due in large part to the Voting Rights Act," he said. "Some people like to point to the fact that we have minorities in the Congress and that we have an African-American president. But we are not there yet!”

Legal analysts regard the Voting Rights Act as one of the landmark civil rights laws of the 1960’s. David Savage covers the Supreme Court for the Los Angeles Times. He spoke to the CSPAN public affairs TV network.

“This law was so important in American history. Everybody agrees, even the people who criticize it today, agree that the Voting Rights Act was one of the great civil rights laws of American history because it really allowed minorities to register to vote and have their votes count,” he said.

Savage said the Supreme Court must now decide whether enough progress has been made that a key provision of the law is no longer necessary.

“The only question now is, is its time past? Is it outdated? I think the conservative members of the court might be inclined to say this was a good law, but its time is past and you can no longer put the Deep South under this special scrutiny of the courts,” Savage said

Legal analysts say the voting-rights challenge is among the most important cases the high court will deal with this term.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case before the end of June.
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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.

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