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Justices May Strike Down Part Of Voting Rights Act
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Justices May Strike Down Part Of Voting Rights Act



From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

The Supreme Court is wrapping up its term. That means some of the year's biggest decisions could be just days away. In one of those cases the court seems likely to strike down a key part of the Voting Rights Act.

As NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, the Obama administration is getting ready to make a quick response.

ARI SHAPIRO: In the Justice Department's headquarters on Constitution Avenue, a group of lawyers from different parts of the building has been strategizing for weeks. The group's leader is a voting rights expert named Sam Hirsch. He arrived at the Justice Department just a few months ago from private practice. Neither he nor anyone else at Justice would comment for this story. But multiple sources in and outside of the department say his team has been studying one of the most controversial cases that came before the high court this year.

They are playing out an elaborate chess game, trying to anticipate where the Supreme Court will move and how the Justice Department should react if the government loses. The question before the court is whether part of the Voting Rights Act is constitutional. Rick Hasen teaches election law at Loyola Law School.

Professor RICK HASEN (Election Law, Loyola Law School): It's really one of the crown jewels of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and for the court to now consider striking down a major portion of it would be, I think, at least symbolically, monumental.

SHAPIRO: The act targets places with a history of discrimination against minority voters. Jurisdictions need Justice Department approval to change their voting procedures. The act is widely credited with breaking down barriers to minority voting and getting minorities into elected office. The people who brought this lawsuit argued the law's policies are unfair and outdated. When the Supreme Court strikes down a significant law, the Justice Department often comes back with a proposed change that would address the court's concerns.

In this case, Civil Rights is such an important part of this administration's agenda, that the Justice Department does not want to wait weeks or months to respond to a decision gutting the Voting Rights Act. That's why lawyers want responses ready to go. The problem is no one knows exactly what the Supreme Court will say. If the court has a problem with one narrow part of the Voting Rights Act, the administration could tweak the law - or the court could go much bigger and so could the Obama administration. Pam Karlan is a law professor at Stanford.

Professor PAM KARLAN (Law, Stanford University): You could imagine, for example, the administration saying, okay, we now have an opportunity to rethink from the ground up what's the best way of ensuring that every American who wants to cast a vote is able to do so. So they might revisit a whole lot of issues that weren't really on the table when Congress simply reauthorized the existing Voting Rights Act in 2006.

SHAPIRO: A new voting law could talk about voter registration, voter ID laws or polling place accessibility. Of course, members of Congress would have to pass any new law. And they might not be eager to endorse a sweeping overhaul.

Mr. BILL YEOMANS (Attorney): It would be, I think, an enormously complex task, and politically very challenging.

SHAPIRO: Bill Yeomans was in the Justice Department Civil Rights Division for 25 years, and he recently worked for Senator Ted Kennedy on the Judiciary Committee. He says an easier fix might be to change part of the Voting Rights Act known as the bailout provision. This has nothing to do with the economic bailout. When states or counties can show a judge that they have not discriminated against minorities in years, they can get out from having to seek approval for changing voting procedures.

Mr. YEOMANS: What legislation could do would be to expand the bailout provision and maybe make it easier for jurisdictions to bail out, maybe make it possible for more jurisdictions to bail out. And that might alleviate the constitutional concerns that the court has.

SHAPIRO: Of course, everyone in this debate is simply reading tea leaves. Only the Supreme Court knows how it will rule on this case. The justices will issue their decision sometime this month.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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