A federal appeals court on Friday upheld a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, rejecting an Alabama county’s challenge to the landmark civil rights law. The provision requires state, county and local governments with a history of discrimination to obtain advance approval from the Justice Department, or from a federal court in Washington, for any changes to election procedures. It now applies to all or parts of 16 states. In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said that Congress developed extensive evidence of continuing racial discrimination just six years ago and reached a reasonable conclusion when it reauthorized section 5 of the law at that time. The appellate ruling could clear the way for the case to be appealed to the Supreme Court where Chief Justice John Roberts suggested in a 2009 opinion that the court’s conservative majority might be receptive to a challenge to section 5. Judge David Tatel wrote for the Court of Appeals majority that the court owes deference to Congress’ judgment on the matter.
“Congress documented hundreds of instances in which the attorney general, acting pursuant to section 5, objected to proposed voting changes that he found would have a discriminatory purpose or effect,” Tatel wrote. Tatel said that in reauthorizing the law in 2006, Congress found serious and widespread intentional discrimination. The attorney general blocked discriminatory voting changes on 626 occasions, while state and local units of government withdrew over 800 proposed voting changes in response to Justice Department inquiries, Tatel said in summarizing the evidence Congress compiled.
In dissent, Judge Stephen Williams said the Voting Rights Act “imposes rather extraordinary burdens” based on information about discrimination that is several decades old. Williams said the law applies substantive standards “quite different from those governing the rest of the nation.”
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