Feds control diminishing

Published 9:10 pm Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A temporary section of the Voting Rights Act that remains in effect 44 years after it was first adopted by Congress barely survived a challenge in the U.S. Supreme Court, raising hopes that the courts eventually will return control over elections in the Deep South to the states.

In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Texas water district that protested a Voting Rights Act provision requiring it to obtain permission from the U.S. Justice Department to make a change in its election procedures. The utility argued that it didn’t have a history of discriminating against black voters and therefore should be free to make election changes without getting approval from Washington.

All nine justices agreed that Section 5 — a temporary intrusion on the states’ authority that was originally justified by discrimination against black voters in certain states and jurisdictions — should not have been applied to the Texas utility. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented because he believed the court should overturn Section 5 instead of ruling narrowly in the case.

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Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, praised the “historic accomplishments of the Voting Rights Act,” but added that Section 5 “imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs.” The ruling expressed skepticism that those “burdens” are fairly applied.

Alabama and other Deep South states have made great strides in guaranteeing the voting rights of blacks. Black voter participation rates in Alabama, for instance, now exceed white voter turnout. And more than 750 blacks hold elected offices in Alabama.

The Supreme Court is moving slowly but surely to end federal intervention in state and local elections.

Although the court wouldn’t go as far as overturning Section 5, it opened the door to new challenges from jurisdictions that can prove they don’t discriminate against blacks.

Perhaps in a few years the court will conclude that Section 5 has degenerated from a guarantee of voting rights to a misuse of federal power and a form of discrimination itself.