WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday gutted a core part of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act and challenged Congress to come up with a replacement plan to protect blacks and other minorities in places where discrimination still persists rather than target former slaveholding states in the South.
In a 5-4 ruling with the court’s conservatives in the majority, the justices ruled that Congress had used outdated facts in continuing to force nine states, mainly in the South, to get federal approval for voting rule changes affecting blacks and other minorities.
The court ruled in favor of officials from Shelby County, Alabama, by declaring unconstitutional a section of the law – most recently updated by Congress in 2006 – that set the formula that decides which states and locales with a history of racial discrimination need federal approval to change voting laws.
President Barack Obama expressed disappointment with the ruling and asked Congress to pass legislation “to ensure every American has equal access to the polls.” “Today’s decision invalidating one of (the law’s) core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent,” Obama, the first black president, said in a statement.
The ruling upended legal protections for minority voters that were a key achievement of the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s led by Martin Luther King Jr. The Voting Rights Act as a whole was enacted to broadly prohibit poll taxes, literacy tests and other measures common in states with a history of slavery that prevented black people from voting.
But, writing for the court’s majority, conservative Chief Justice John Roberts said that America is not the country that it was a half century ago when the Voting Rights Act was passed to end a century of attempts by former slaveholding states to block blacks from voting.
“Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions,” Roberts wrote. But Democrats have accused Republicans at the state level in recent years of enacting a series of measures intended to suppress the vote of minority groups likely to support Democratic candidates. Just last week, the Supreme Court struck down an Arizona law that required people registering to vote in federal elections to show proof of citizenship, a victory for activists who said it discouraged Native Americans and Latinos from voting.