Conservative justices who hold a slim majority on the Supreme Court expressed grave doubts Wednesday that the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 — the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement — remains constitutional nearly a half century later. The justices who could be the swing votes in an eventual ruling suggested that an outdated formula built into the law now discriminates against the South, much as Southern states discriminated against black voters by erecting barriers such as poll taxes and literacy tests. “Is it the government’s submission that the citizens in the South are more racist than the citizens in the North?” Chief Justice John Roberts asked Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, who argued that the law should remain intact. Roberts noted that Massachusetts has the worst black turnout in elections when compared with whites — and Mississippi the best. Although the more liberal justices defended Section 5 of the law, which requires all or parts of 16 states to clear any voting changes with the federal government, at times the die appeared cast inside the marble courtroom. That could mean a decision by June rendering that provision unconstitutional or sending it back to Congress.
“It’s easy to go broke guessing on the outcome of any Supreme Court argument,” said Edward Blum, director of the Project on Fair Representation, which solicited the challenge to the law. But he said the questions from Roberts and others “highlighted the justices’ skepticism about the differences in discrimination between the covered and non-covered jurisdictions. Those differences simply don’t exist any longer.”