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Today marked a historic moment at the Supreme Court, a day that could be a turning point. The justices heard a challenge to a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The law is widely seen as the most effective civil rights legislation in American history.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: We will fight. We will fight.

BLOCK: Outside the court, a crowd gathered including members of Congress and veterans of the fight for voting rights in the South. Among them was Congressman John Lewis, who was severely beaten during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. He said the struggle continues.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS: We are not there yet. Some people like to point to the fact that we have minorities in the Congress, that we have an African-American president, but we are not there yet. We witnessed the long lines during the past election. We witnessed gerrymandering, at-large election, and trying to make it hard and difficult for many people to participate in the democratic process. We are not there yet.

BLOCK: Inside the courtroom, during intense debate, the court's conservative majority expressed strong doubts about the ongoing validity of the law. It's a law the Congress reauthorized by a near unanimous vote just seven years ago. Here's NPR's Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: At issue is the provision of the law that applies to specific parts of the country where discriminatory voting procedures were once routine. The measure covers all of nine states, mainly in the South, and parts of seven others, and it requires that any changes in voting procedures in the covered jurisdictions have to be approved in advance by the Justice Department before they go into effect.

Shelby County, Alabama, challenged the law, contending that the formula for which locations are covered has not been updated since 1975 and that the law is therefore an unjustified invasion of states' rights. Shelby County attorney Butch Ellis.

FRANK 'BUTCH' ELLIS: We think that it's time to recognize that we and the other covered states need to be considered with the same rights of sovereignty that the non-covered jurisdictions in the country experience.

TOTENBERG: But Shelby County Pastor Harry Jones countered that the law still provides a needed safety net.

REVEREND HARRY JONES: We fought too long and too hard to get where we are, to get out here and have this thing put in reverse.

TOTENBERG: Inside the courtroom, the debate was pretty fierce as the liberal justices greeted Shelby County's arguments with skepticism. Justice Sotomayor led off: Assuming that I accept your premise that portions of the South have changed, your county pretty much hasn't. The Justice Department has blocked 240 proposed changes. Why would we vote for a county whose record is the epitome of what caused the passage of this law to start with?

Justice Kagan noted that under the Voting Rights Act, all parts of the country are subject to a provision that bars intentional voting discrimination. But when one looks at those cases, Alabama is number one on the list of offenders, she said. Under any formula that Congress could devise, it would capture Alabama.

Justice Breyer compared the congressional reauthorization to preventing a known disease. The disease may have evolved since 1965, but Congress decided preventive actions were still needed to deal with second-generation problems.

After more back and forth, Shelby County's lawyer, Bert Rein, said Congress had simply gone too far and, without adequate justification, killed a problem that amounts to a fly with a sledgehammer.

Justice Kagan: You say the problem has been solved, but who gets to make that judgment? Is it you, is it the court or is it Congress? Answer: It's up to the court to determine whether the problem indeed has been solved. Justice Kagan: Well, that's a big, new power you're giving us. I did not think that fell within our bailiwick.

If the liberals were fierce in their questions, though, the conservative justices were ferocious, including the man who's likely to cast the fifth and deciding vote in the case, Justice Kennedy. Chief Justice Roberts, who actively opposed extension of the Voting Rights Act when he served in the Reagan administration, was loaded for bear, grilling the government's chief advocate, Donald Verrilli.

Roberts: Which state has the greatest disparity in registration between white and black voters? Verrilli didn't know, but the chief did, telling him it's Massachusetts and that, in Mississippi, the black registration rate is higher than the white registration rate. Verrilli replied that Congress wasn't writing on a blank slate because the covered areas have a documented history of racial discrimination.

Congress, he said, was making a cautious choice not to ease up on protections too soon. Justice Kennedy: But times change. Why wouldn't it be enough to bring suit under the other part of the Voting Rights Act which bars intentional discrimination in voting and which applies to the whole country? Answer: Because there would be no way to keep up with the thousands and thousands of changes in voting procedures, including thousands of polling place changes, which occur, quote, "under the radar." Justice Alito: Then why shouldn't the preclearance section apply everywhere in the country? Answer: Because Congress made a reasonable choice in 2006 that there was a greater risk in these areas.

Chief Justice Roberts: Is it the government's submission that the citizens in the South are more racist than citizens in the North? Answer: It's not our submission, but Congress made a finding that there was a greater need in these covered areas. Justice Scalia: This court doesn't like to get involved in racial questions such as this one. It's something that can be left to Congress. The problem here, however, is that the Senate, for instance, voted 98 to nothing to reauthorize the law in 2006 versus the vote in 1965 when the number of opponents was in the double digits. And that, said Scalia, suggests that Congress is engaged in the phenomenon of perpetuating racial entitlements. No elected official has any interest in voting against the law. Solicitor General Verrilli responded that the Constitution expressly gives Congress the power to enforce voting rights. It would be extraordinary, he said, to look behind that judgment of Congress with some sort of motive analysis.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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