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US Supreme Court to Rule on Important Challenges to Civil Rights Laws

Civil rights experts are watching several important cases before the U.S. Supreme Court this year. The high court has already narrowed the scope of the a landmark civil rights act, in a challenge out of the southern state of North Carolina.

But, in the next few months, the nine justices will consider several cases that experts consider even more significant, particularly with the more conservative make up of the court. The expected decisions could affect how the federal laws on discrimination and voting rights are applied in the coming years.

The U.S. Supreme Court is considering several important cases that will shape the legal legacy of Chief Justice John Roberts. In 2006, then-President George Bush signed the renewal of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. The law outlawed discriminatory voting practices that disenfranchised minorities. It also set up federal oversight in some locations, mostly in southern states.

Analysts say the issues could sharply divide the court.

"On a lot of the controversial issues over the last number of years it has be 5 to 4 going one way or the other with Justice Kennedy holding the swing," said Ilya Shapiro, a Senior Fellow of Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute in Washington.

The high court decided one case by that margin on March 9. Justices ruled that the federal law does not provide protections for voting districts where minorities make up less than one half of the population. The decision is widely seen as narrowing the reach of the act.

Court watchers are waiting to see how the relatively new chief justice, John Roberts, will rule.

"Is Justice Roberts going to join in striking down the most significant reaffirmation of civil rights statutes in this 21st Century so far as one of his major decisions and a part of his legacy," asked John Brittain, General Counsel for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Legal experts say a challenge out of Travis County, Texas could sharply divide the high court. The Voting Rights Act requires [in Section Five of the statute] federal approval of any changes in election procedures in places with a history of discrimination. Officials in a small voting district in the county wanted to move the location of some polling stations but did not want to get federal permission.

Shapiro argues locations which have no specific history of racial bias should now be able to avoid federal oversight.

"It might be controversial because to goes to the larger issue of whether these states, 50 years after Jim Crow [racial discrimination laws against blacks], should still be governed by the federal government, unlike other states," he said.

But Brittain contends if the court sides with the Texas district, it would be a major setback for minority voters.

"It would put the burden on minorities and on civil rights organizations to have to go to court, raise the money, take the long time to appeal," he said. "And to ultimately if they are successful win."

Another case involves firefighters in New Haven, Connecticut. Out of 118 applications, no blacks and only two Hispanic firefighters passed an exam to get a promotion.

City officials rejected the results, fearing the test was flawed since the white firefighters had disproportionately higher scores than blacks. But 18 white firefighters sued for reverse discrimination. They claim the decision to cancel the test and promotions was race-based and violated fair employment laws.

Brittain sees irony in this argument.

"Minority firefighters, African Americans and Hispanics have been successful in many cases in challenging these tests as biased and discriminatory," he said.

Analysts on both sides of the ideological divide are eagerly awaiting the decisions that could show how the conservative majority on the Roberts court will define the future of civil rights law in America.