Landmark Civil Rights Law in Jeopardy?

Some residents of a small Texas municipal district believe that a key section of landmark voting rights legislation -- created in 1965 to protect minorities in jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination -- is archaic and should be abolished.

The debate has teed up today's Supreme Court argument, which could forever change the intersection between election law and civil rights.

"The America that has just elected Barack Obama is not the same America that existed when Section 5 was put into place," says Gregory S. Coleman, an attorney for the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District.

Section 5 refers to the portion of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) that mandates that the Justice Department approve any change in voting procedures for covered jurisdictions.

Coleman will tell the Supreme Court justices that the district is suing the government because Congress was wrong to reauthorize key sections of the Voting Rights Act in 2006.

"At some point you have to say we've come far enough. Why do we and the other affected jurisdictions have to have the federal government looking over our shoulder," says Coleman.

He calls Section 5 -- which currently covers nine states and portions of another seven -- an "ancient formula" that has become a "badge of shame," and he argues that no election-related lawsuit has ever been filed against the district.

The lawsuit was prompted when some residents of the 3,500 community became infuriated that they had to spend two months and hundreds of dollars in legal fees just to move a polling place from a garage to a school. They support the broader goals of the Voting Rights Act but believe Section 5 should be scrubbed.

The case has civil rights lawyers worried. In briefs filed with the court, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund argues, "No statute in our history embodies America's commitment to democracy more clearly than the Voting Rights Act."

"We have Section 5 because of a history of jurisdictions doing everything conceivable to adversely affect the ability of African-Americans initially, and other minorities later, to exercise their right to vote," says John Payton, president of the Legal Defense Fund.

Voting Rights Act Still Necessary?

Payton dismisses any notion that enough progress has been made to make Section 5 unnecessary.

"Since the last authorization there have been hundreds and hundreds, hundreds of examples of jurisdictions trying to change practices and procedures to vote that would have adversely affected the minorities' right to vote," he says. "The fact that Section 5 is still working means it's still catching things. If it is still catching things, we need it."

The Obama administration agrees. In court papers, it argues that Congress was right to pass the latest reauthorization of Section 5 in 2007, saying that the legislation "continued this nation's sacred commitment to eradicating the effects of its darkest days."

Noting the history of discrimination across the country, Justice Department lawyer Edwin S. Kneedler writes, "While progress has been made over the last four decades, Congress in 2006 acknowledged the still painful reality that this blight has not yet been eradicated."

The case will be the most important voting rights case to come before Chief Justice John Robert's court.

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