High Court Leaves Voting Rights Act Intact

The Supreme Court ruled Monday in a case that could have gutted the Voting Rights Act, but didn't. By an 8-1 margin, the justices left the law intact, although they said more voting districts should have the chance to be free of Justice Department oversight.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We have an update now from the Supreme Court. The court ruled this morning in a case that could have gutted the Voting Rights Act, but it didnt. By an 8-1 margin, the justices left the law intact, although they did say more voting districts should have the chance to be free of Justice Department oversight. NPRs Nina Totenberg joins us now. And Nina, tell us what was at issue in this case.

NINA TOTENBERG: Well, the core of the Voting Rights Act and its most successful provision was whats called Section 5, which required the Justice Department to pre-clear any changes in voting procedures in certain designated areas with a history of racial or other kinds of - racial discrimination or discrimination against, for example, Hispanic voters. This was mainly the South, but not exclusively the South. And it has been the most successful piece of legislation by everybodys reckoning in the last half century to change what America is today.

Now, this was a challenge to the most recent reenactment of that provision, saying the times have changed and its unconstitutional to treat these jurisdictions differently than the rest of the country, that they shouldnt have to go to the Justice Department begging, basically, to have their - if they want to change procedures or laws in their jurisdictions. And at argument, it looked very much like the court was going to strike down the Voting Rights Act, but it didnt do that today.

MONTAGNE: But did the ruling that the high court gave today, did it change anything?

TOTENBERG: It did change something. What the court said in an opinion 8-1 opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts said that the so-called bailout provision of the law - this is a provision of the law that allows jurisdictions with a good record for 10 years, no problems for 10 years, to bail out, to say I dont have to get my laws pre-cleared or my changes pre-cleared anymore. But that bailout provision should have a wider application. Until now, it had - it applied only to those districts that registered voters. And the district that brought this case did not register voters. It had elections, but it wasnt - it was so small, it didnt register voters. A larger county or series of counties registered voters. And the court said, no, this jurisdiction should be able to bail out. Congressmen had amended the act expecting more bailouts, which it did. And every jurisdiction that has a good record and conducts elections should be able to bail out.

MONTAGNE: Now, Nina, we only have a few seconds, but could you tell us what could have happened to the Voting Rights Act?

TOTENBERG: Well, if it had been struck down I talked to lots of people involved in this. They did not know how they could rebuild it. And actually, most of the jurisdictions covered by the act like it. Most of the Southern states, for example, filed briefs in support of the act. So I think its going to be pretty hard to find challengers now that more sections more subdivisions can bail out. They will bail out if theyve got a good record and they want to.

MONTAGNE: Mm-hmm. Thank you very much.

TOTENBERG: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

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