A federal appeals court on Friday upheld a signature portion of the Voting Rights Act, setting the stage for consideration by a Supreme Court whose majority is skeptical about the law’s continued viability. On a 2 to 1 vote, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit turned down a challenge to Section 5 of the historic civil rights act, which requires states and localities with a history of discrimination to get federal approval of any changes in their voting laws. First passed in 1965, the act was most recently extended in 2006. Conservative critics have said that despite lopsided votes in both houses and the approval of President George W. Bush, lawmakers did not do enough to justify extending the Section 5 restrictions on nine states, mostly in the South, and parts of seven others. But U.S. Circuit Judge David S. Tatel said the judicial branch had no reason to second-guess Congress in reauthorizing the law.
“Congress drew reasonable conclusions from the extensive evidence it gathered” and was fulfilling its obligation to ensure “that the right to vote — surely among the most important guarantees of political liberty in the Constitution — is not abridged on account of race,” Tatel wrote. “In this context, we owe much deference to the considered judgment of the people’s elected representatives.”
The final word will almost surely come from the U.S. Supreme Court. Conservative activists and Republican attorneys general from some of the covered states — Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia — have launched challenges to the law. They are encouraged by a 2009 Supreme Court decision that, as Tatel acknowledged in his opinion, raised substantial questions about Section 5’s continued constitutionality.