Nightly News   |  March 01, 2013

A left-right divide as SCOTUS debates Voting Rights Act

As they debate one of the nation’s most important civil rights laws, the U.S. Supreme Court’s liberal justices argue that discrimination still remains a problem while the conservative justices say it isn’t. They will make a final decision by late June. NBC’s Pete Williams reports.

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>>> tonight, we get to hear for the first time the justices of the supreme court , and exactly what they said in court recorded on tape during the arguments earlier this week over whether to uphold or strike down the voting rights act of 1965 . it's the most important civil rights law of the modern era , which is why the words you're about to hear may live on forever. our report from our justice correspondent, pete williams .

>> reporter: just look, the court's liberal member said, at where most voter discrimination lawsuits come from, areas in 16 states covered by the law.

>> you can say maybe this district shouldn't be covered, maybe this one should be covered. the formula seems to be working pretty well in terms of going after the actual violations on the ground and who is committing them.

>> and why would we vote in favor of a county whose record is the epitome of what caused the passage of this law to start with.

>> reporter: but the court's conservatives told don verify i willy that congress didn't look at the most up to date evidence when it last renewed the law in 2006 .

>> do you know which state has the worst ratio of white voter turnout to african-american voter turnout ?

>> i do not.

>> massachusetts.

>> do you know what has the best, where african-american turnout actually exceeds white turnout. mississippi. is it the government's submission that the citizens in the south are more racist than citizens in the north?

>> it is not.

>> the formula was rational and effective in 1965 . the court upheld it then. it upheld it three more times after that.

>> well, the marshall plan was very good, too. the morrill act , the northwest ordinance , but times change.

>> reporter: and justice scalia wondered why the law has had growing political support in congress.

>> i think it was attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon called perpetuation of racial entitlement. it's been written about whenever a society adopts a racial entitlements. it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.

>> reporter: that comment provoked an immediate response. congressman john lewis of georgia called it an affront to the civil rights movement . the court will decide the future of the voting rights act by late june. pete williams , nbc news, at the supreme court .