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Supreme Court strikes down part of Voting Rights Act

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the nation's most important civil rights laws, requires states with a history of discrimination to get federal approval before changing how they conduct elections. That part of the law is still intact, but on Tuesday the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 the coverage map is based on outdated data.  NBC's Pete Williams reports.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — the map that determines which states must get federal permission before they change their voting laws.

Civil rights activists called the decision devastating, and a dissenting justice said it amounted to the “demolition” of the law, widely considered the most important piece of civil rights legislation in American history.

The ruling, a 5-4 decision by Chief Justice John Roberts, leaves the future of the law deeply uncertain because it will be up to a sharply divided Congress to redraw the map, if it can agree on one at all.

“In practice, in reality, it’s probably the death knell of this provision,” said Tom Goldstein, the publisher of SCOTUSblog and a Supreme Court analyst for NBC News.

The Voting Rights Act requires nine states with a history of discrimination at the polls, mostly in the South, to get approval from the Justice Department or a special panel of judges before they change their voting laws. The rule also applies to 12 cities and 57 counties elsewhere.

The law was renewed most recently in 2006, but the coverage map still uses election data from 1972 to determine who is covered. Some jurisdictions, including the Alabama county that brought the case, complained that they were being punished for the sins of many decades ago.

Roberts cited census data showing that black voter turnout now exceeds white turnout in five of the six states originally covered by the law.

“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 for the court.

Aug. 6, 1965: President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act into law.

The act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson. Congress has renewed it four times, and the 2006 renewal won a huge majority in the House and passed the Senate 98-0. That renewal extended the law through 2031.

As part of the ruling Tuesday, the court published a chart comparing white and black voter registration in 1965 and in 2004 in the six states originally covered. In Alabama, for example, the white registration rate was 69 percent and the black rate 19 percent in 1965. By 2004, that gap had all but disappeared — 74 percent for whites and 73 percent for blacks.

“There is no doubt that these improvements are in large part because of the Voting Rights Act,” Roberts wrote. “The Act has proved immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process.”

He cited two towns deeply scarred by the civil rights movement: Philadelphia, Miss., where three men trying to register black voters were murdered in 1964, and Selma, Ala., where police beat hundreds of people marching in 1965. Both towns now have black mayors.

“Problems remain in these States and others,” Roberts wrote, “but there is no denying that, due to the Voting Rights Act, our Nation has made great strides.”

He concluded: “If Congress had started from scratch in 2006, it plainly could not have enacted the present coverage formula.”

The Voting Rights Act is invoked often. It was used to block more than 1,000 proposed changes to voting laws between 1982 and 2006, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy institute at New York University.

And last year, the Voting Rights Act was invoked to stop a voter identification law in Texas and a Florida law that eliminated early voting days, which the center said would have made it more difficult for hundreds of thousands of minority voters to cast ballots.

The states covered are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

Following the Supreme Court's ruling on the Voting Rights Act, NBC's Chuck Todd says he's a pessimist on Congress' ability to update the map that determines which states must get federal permission before they change their voting laws.

The future of the law in Congress is far from clear. Goldstein said that it was “unimaginable” that the Republican-controlled House would determine that, for example, Louisiana still harbors so much racism that it must subject its voting laws to federal approval.

President Barack Obama said in a statement that he was “deeply disappointed” by the decision.

The Voting Rights Act “has helped secure the right to vote for millions of Americans,” he said. “Today’s decision invalidating one of its 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.”

Veterans of the civil rights movement expressed deep dismay.

“I think what the court did today is stab the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in its very heart," Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who was with President Johnson when he signed the law and who was beaten at Selma, said on the MSNBC program “Andrea Mitchell Reports.”

Of the prospect of getting a new map through Congress, he said: “It’s going to be hard, it’s going to be very difficult, but people said the same thing in 1965.”

Julian Bond, who helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, said on MSNBC that the chances were “slim to none” that Congress would agree on a way forward for the law.

“This is a dysfunctional Congress,” he said. “It’s not doing anything now. It hasn’t done anything for a number of years.”

Roberts was joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion and said that he would have struck down not just the map but the requirement that any jurisdiction get federal clearance to change a voting law.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a dissenting opinion and was joined by the three other members of the court’s more liberal wing. She said that the court should defer to Congress.

“When confronting the most constitutionally invidious form of discrimination, and the most fundamental right in our democratic system, Congress’ power to act is at its height,” Ginsburg wrote.

“Hubris is a fit word for today’s demolition of the VRA,” she said.

The case was brought by Shelby County, Ala., which urged the Supreme Court to strike down both the permission requirement itself and the formula that determines which jurisdictions are covered.

The justices, particularly those on the court’s conservative wing, had expressed deep skepticism when the case was argued in February that the permission requirement was still necessary.

The wide margins of approval in Congress, Justice Antonin Scalia said at the argument, are likely the result of “perpetuation of racial entitlement” — a remark that angered some veterans of the civil rights movement.

“Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements,” Scalia said, “it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.”

And the court signaled four years ago, in a decision that narrowly rejected a challenge to the permission requirement, that it had doubts about whether at least parts of the Voting Rights Act were constitutional.

“Things have changed in the South,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in that decision. “Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare.”

Peter Alexander of NBC News contributed to this report.

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