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Supreme Court to Weigh Voting Rights Act

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to take up a major case involving the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The court will consider the constitutional viability of Section 5 of the law, which imposes special obligations on jurisdictions, including school districts, with a history of discrimination in voting.

The court accepted an appeal from Shelby County, Ala., which has been a covered jurisdiction under the law since 1965. The county filed an action in federal district court in Washington challenging the 2006 action of Congress to renew the Voting Rights Act and its "preclearance" requirement for another 25 years.

"The preclearance regime has an outsized effect on the basic operation of state and local government," the county's appeal said. "A covered jurisdiction must either go hat in hand to [U.S. Department of Justice] officialdom to seek approval, or embark on expensive litigation in a remote judicial venue if it wishes to make any changes to its election system."

Under the preclearance requirement, covered jurisdictions such as school districts must gain approval from either the Justice Department or a special three-judge federal district court in Washington for steps like adjustments in election districts or changes to the structure of a governing board, such as going from single-member districts to an at-large system.

Both a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, in the nation's capital, upheld the renewal as a valid exercise of Congress' authority under the 14th and 15th Amendments.

U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., in a brief urging the justices not to take up the case, said voting discrimination in covered jurisdictions was still "extensive." He cited, among recent examples of the continued need for Section 5 preclearance procedures, a redistricting plan for the Webster County, Ga., school board that he said was undertaken to "intentionally decrease the opportunity of minority voters to participate in the electoral process" after a majority-black board was elected.

Meanwhile, a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said that the record of minority gains in elections in recent years cited by Shelby County "largely has been a function of the creation of majority-minority election districts" under the Voting Rights Act.

The justices announced Nov. 9 they would hear the county's appeal in Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder (Case No. 12-96). Arguments are likely sometime next spring, with a decision by June.

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