The Supreme Court decided Monday that a small utility district in Texas may be exempt from provisions of the Voting Rights Act, sidestepping a decision on the constitutionality of the 1965 law that protects the voting rights of minorities.
Under the law, all or part of 16 states — which are mainly in the South and have a history of discrimination in voting — are required to get advance approval from the Justice Department or a federal court if they want to change their voting procedures. But the justices ruled that the tiny Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 in Austin may apply to opt out of the advance approval requirement.
The 8-1 decision may mean more governmental entities in the 16 states covered under the law will seek exemptions.
Chief Justice John Roberts said the utility district could apply for exemption, even though it does not register voters. The law was primarily intended to ensure that black and other minority voters were not prevented from voting by states, counties and parishes where voter registration takes place.
The law was adopted at the height of the civil rights movement, and Congress voted in 2006 to extend it for 25 years.
Roberts, writing for the court, said the larger issue of whether dramatic civil rights gains mean the advance approval requirement is no longer necessary "is a difficult constitutional question we do not answer today."
Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone dissenter. He said he would have held that the provision, known as Section 5, is unconstitutional. "The violence, intimidation and subterfuge that led Congress to pass Section 5 and this court to uphold it no longer remains," he said.
During oral arguments the court seemed closely divided, and some legal experts incorrectly had predicted the justices might gut the Voting Rights Act.
In other Supreme Court actions Monday:
• The justices agreed to decide the constitutionality of a federal law allowing the continued imprisonment of sex offenders even after their sentences have been completed.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled earlier this year that Congress did not have the authority to allow indefinite imprisonment of "sexually dangerous" persons as a provision of the 2006 law.
The law was challenged by four men who served from three to eight years in prison for possession of child pornography or sexual abuse of a minor. Their confinement has been extended for more than two years because the government determined they posed a risk of violence or sexually violent conduct if they were released.
The Justice Department challenged the 4th Circuit decision, and Roberts granted a government request to block the release of up to 77 inmates at a federal prison in North Carolina while the high court considered the appeal.
The case will be argued during the court's next term, which begins in October.
Other provisions of the Adam Walsh law — named after the son of America's Most Wanted television host John Walsh — which established a sex offender registry and increased the punishment range for some federal crimes against children, were not challenged.
The case does not affect state laws that permit such commitments.
• The court said it will decide whether police have to inform suspects that they have the right to have an attorney present during police questioning.
The case involves Kevin Dwayne Powell, a Florida man who was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Police gave Powell Miranda warnings, which include telling him he had the right to have an attorney, but they did not tell him he had a right to have a lawyer present during his interrogation.
Florida's Supreme Court said the police erred in not informing Powell of his right to have an attorney present during questioning and overturned the conviction.
• The justices decided in a 6-3 vote that parents of special education students may seek reimbursement for private school costs from public school districts, even if they did not first try the public schools.
Federal law requires districts to reimburse families for education costs, but schools have argued that the law says parents must give public school special education programs a chance first.
But advocacy groups and parents of some special education students contend that forcing them to try public schools first could force children, especially poor ones, to spend time in an undesirable situation before getting the help they need.
• The court refused to reinstate a lawsuit that former CIA agent Valerie Plame and her husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, brought against former members of the Bush administration. A lower court threw out the suit last year.
Plame had accused former Vice President Dick Cheney, top Cheney aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby and others of leaking information to reporters that she worked for the CIA.
• The court narrowly decided that Coeur d'Alene Mines Corp. may dump rock debris from the company's gold mine into a lake on federal land.
In a 5-4 vote, the court overturned an appeals court ruling that had invalidated the company's permit. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had granted the permit in 2005, which allowed the company to deposit 4.5 million tons of rock waste into the lake over a decade. The waste is being generated from the Kensington Gold Mine, an underground operation northwest of Juneau, Alaska.
From NPR staff and wire service reports