updated 11/9/2005 8:09:41 PM ET 2005-11-10T01:09:41

Civil rights activists argued Wednesday that a 2-year-old Supreme Court decision largely wiped out 40 years of progress minorities have made under the Voting Rights Act.

Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People were among those who asked a House panel to renew a key portion of the law but include a provision that would essentially undo a verdict pertaining to Georgia redistricting.

“It clearly shows the schizophrenic, dichotomized mind-set this nation clearly has in terms of extending voting rights and then taking them back,” Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., said of the Georgia v. Ashcroft decision.

At issue before the House Judiciary Committee’s panel on the Constitution is a section of the Voting Rights Act that expires in 2007. It requires states with a history of racial discrimination to get federal government approval before changing their voting laws. Redistricting cases spark the most legal challenges, particularly when minorities can prove that a new map gives them less of a chance at electing candidates they prefer.

But in the 2003 Georgia v. Ashcroft case, the Supreme Court gave states more leeway to redraw the lines without being overturned for racial reasons. The test shouldn’t just be whether minorities can elect candidates of choice, the court said, but whether they can “influence” an election.

“The court took a standard that was intelligible, easy to apply and turned it into something that is subjective, abstract and impressionistic,” said Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Projects.

Anne Lewis, a lawyer who represented four voters involved in the Georgia v. Ashcroft case, agreed the influence standard needs to be scrapped.

“From a practical standpoint, it’s impossible to apply,” she said. “From a voting rights perspective, it’s a disaster.”

The case, a 5-4 decision, addressed whether Georgia could reduce the number of black people in three Senate districts, provided the black voting-age population in those districts stayed above 50 percent. The Supreme Court overturned a lower-court ruling that had required the state legislature to redraw the three districts.

But it was less the decision itself than the language in the opinion that concerns civil rights leaders. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for the majority, said the law “as properly interpreted, should encourage the transition to a society where race no longer matters: a society where integration and colorblindness are not just qualities to be proud of, but are simple facts of life.”

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