While reviewing a challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, several Supreme Court justices questioned the need for continuing an important provision of the act (Section 5), which requires, due to racial issues at the time, certain geographic areas — mainly seven Southern states, Alaska, Arizona, and three boroughs of New York City, as well as numerous smaller jurisdictions — to obtain federal preclearance before making changes in voting laws.
When Congress reauthorized the law in 2006, and President George W. Bush signed it, it provided for a continuation of the formulas mandated by the original 1965 act. The challenge was presented in the case currently before the Court: Shelby County v. Holder, No. 12-96. (Shelby County is in Alabama and Eric Holder is the current Attorney General of the United States.) The Supreme Court heard oral arguments for the case on February 27.
A report Thursday in the New York Times quoted several of the justices, including Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who asked skeptically whether “the citizens in the South are more racist than citizens in the North.” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, often regarded as a “swing” vote balancing others on the High Court considered to be “conservative” or “liberal,” employed a classic states’ rights argument in asking whether Alabama today is an “independent sovereign” or whether it must live “under the trusteeship of the United States government.”
Justice Kennedy’s statement provided more credence to the constitutional principle of state sovereignty than did a statement from Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., usually described as a “conservative.”
“There is no question that the Voting Rights Act has done enormous good,” said Alito. “It’s one of the most successful statutes that Congress passed in the 20th century and one could probably go farther than that.”
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