WASHINGTON (AP) — The most potent weapon in fighting discrimination at the ballot box comes before the Supreme Court in a case that weighs the nation's enormous progress in civil rights against the need to continue to protect minority voters.
The justices are hearing arguments Wednesday in a challenge to the part of the Voting Rights Act that forces places with a history of discrimination, mainly in the Deep South, to get approval before they make any change in the way elections are held.
The lawsuit from Shelby County, Ala., near Birmingham, says the "dire local conditions" that once justified strict federal oversight of elections no longer exist.
The Obama administration and civil rights groups acknowledge the progress, but also argue that Congress was justified in maintaining the advance approval, or preclearance, provision when the law was last renewed in 2006.
Last week, President Barack Obama weighed in on behalf of the law in a radio interview with SiriusXM host Joe Madison. "It would be hard for us to catch those things up front to make sure that elections are done in an equitable way" if the need for advance approval from the Justice Department or federal judges in Washington were stripped away, Obama said.
The Supreme Court already has expressed deep skepticism about the ongoing need for the law. In 2009, the justices heard a similar challenge in which Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court that the law's past success "is not adequate justification to retain the preclearance requirements." But the court sidestepped the question of the law's constitutionality in its 2009 decision.
Advance approval has been successful because it requires the governments to demonstrate that their proposed election changes will not discriminate, the law's advocates say. "It moved the burden from victims to perpetrators," said Sherrilyn Ifill, the head of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund.