WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Friday to hear a constitutional challenge to a key component of the Voting Rights Act, the main federal law for ensuring access to the polls by minorities.
The justices said they will review a lower court ruling upholding a provision of the Voting Rights Act that requires all or parts of 16 states with a history of racial discrimination, most in the South, to get approval before implementing any changes in the way elections are held.
In 2006, Congress voted overwhelmingly to extend the measure for another 25 years. The law was designed to prevent governments from making it harder for minorities to vote.
The high court has upheld earlier extensions of the provision that calls for either the U.S. attorney general or a court to sign off in advance on changes to requirements to hold office, polling places and other issues involving the conduct of elections.
The justices will hear the case in April, against the backdrop of a presidential election that was unimaginable when the law was enacted in 1965.
“The elephant in the room is what to make of the Obama election,” said Nathaniel Persily, professor of law and political science at Columbia Law School. “Does the election of the first African-American president undermine the central justification for parts of the Voting Rights Act?”
The latest challenge comes from a local Texas government that says it was created in the 1980s, has no history of discrimination and shouldn’t be subject to what it calls “the most federally invasive law in existence.”
Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One, a government board formed to provide local services to about 3,500 people, sued following the 2006 extension. The board asked the court to exempt it from the law and said Congress had no constitutional right to pass a bill that tried to remedy past discrimination.
Eight states are covered in their entirety: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas. In Virginia, all but 15 cities and counties must comply with the measure.
Parts of California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota.
The case is Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Mukasey, 08-322.