Nightly News   |  June 25, 2013

SCOTUS conservatives strike at heart of Voting Rights Act

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the nation’s most important civil rights laws, requires states with a history of discrimination to get federal approval before changing how they conduct elections. That part of the law is still intact, but on Tuesday the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 the coverage map is based on outdated data.  NBC’s Pete Williams reports.

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>>> good evening. as one reporter put it today, the u.s. supreme court has driven a stake through the heart of the most important civil rights law ever enacted, the voting rights act . it was created because of a history of discrimination in certain states. today the court said our country has changed since then. the court was divided over it, and while it doesn't end voting rights enforcement in this country. it fired up opponents from the president to the attorney general, the civil rights groups. it does allow congress to bring it back if there's the political will. it's where we begin tonight with our justice correspondent pete williams at the court . pete, good evening.

>> brian, good evening. the court 's conservatives followed through on a threat they made four years ago to strike at the heart of the voting rights act unless congress updated it, congress did nothing, and today the court left the key part of the law all but dead. the ruling deals a crippling and potentially fatal blow to the law signed by johnson in 1965 , a response to widespread efforts in the south to prevent blacks from voting.

>> we're marching today to drum ties to the nation.

>> reporter: john lewis watched as the law was signed.

>> without the voting rights act of 1965 , there would be no barack obama as president of the united states of america . we've come too far, made too much progress to go back.

>> this decision represents a serious set back for voting rights and has the potential to negatively affect millions of americans across the country.

>> reporter: in a 5-4 ruling, the court 's conservatives said the areas covered by the voting rights act have changed but the law has not kept up. the law requires states with a history of voter discrimination to get permission from the federal government before changing how they conduct elections. the court left that in tact. but it struck down the map of where that requirement applies, that's all of nine mostly southern states and parts of six others. john roberts said the map is based on decades old data and eradicated practices. in five of the covered southern states , african- americans have a higher voter turnout than white. opponents of the law who helped shelbey county, alabama challenge it, hailed the ruling.

>> we just elected a black president of the shelbey county board of education over a white incumbent.

>> african- americans are an integral part of southern political life . and that's a good thing, and that's never going to change.

>> reporter: but writing for the court 's centers, justice ginsberg said gutting the law is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet. civil rights groups vowed to rally the same kind of action against congress they got 40 years ago.

>> the only way congress will act is if we call, we march, we make clear we do not intend to go backwards on voting.

>>> one state, texas responded immediately, said it would start enforcing one of the nation's strictest voter i.d. laws and it may redraw its congressional and legislative districts now that it's no longer covered by a key part of the voter rights act. the term ends with the final decisions, including on those two blockbuster cases on same sex marriage.

>> pete williams at the court for us tonight, pete, thanks.