The Voting Rights Act, the government's chief weapon against racial discrimination at polling places since the 1960s, survived a Supreme Court challenge Monday in a ruling that nevertheless warned of serious constitutional questions posed by part of the law.
Major civil rights groups and other defenders of the landmark law breathed a sigh of relief when the court ruled narrowly in favor of a small Texas governing authority while sidestepping the larger constitutional issue.
After argument in late April, it appeared the court's conservatives could have a majority to strike down part of the law as unnecessary in an era marked by the election of the first African-American president.
But with only one justice in dissent, the court avoided the major questions raised over the section of the voting law that requires all or parts of 16 states — mainly in the South and with a history of discrimination in voting — to get Justice Department approval before making changes in the way elections are conducted.
The court said that the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 in Austin, Texas, could apply to opt out of the advance approval requirement, reversing a lower federal court that ruled it could not. The district appears to meet the requirements to bail out, although the high court did not pass judgment Monday on that point.
Five months after Barack Obama became president, Chief Justice John Roberts said the justices decided not to determine whether dramatic civil rights gains means the advance approval requirement is no longer necessary. That larger issue, Roberts said, "is a difficult constitutional question we do not answer today."
Attorney General Eric Holder called the decision a victory for voting rights and said the court "ensured that this law will continue to protect free and fair access to the voting booth."
Debo Adegbile, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund lawyer who argued for the preservation of the law at the high court, said, "The fact is, the case was filed to tear the heart out of the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act and that effort failed today."
But critics of the law said the court made clear that it may not take such a restrained approach the next time a voting rights challenge comes it way.
"It leaves the courts wide open to another challenge. If someone files a new lawsuit, I think there's a very good chance that down the line they might find it unconstitutional," said Hans von Spakovsky, a legal scholar at the conservative-oriented Heritage Foundation.
Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., one of only 33 lawmakers who opposed renewal of the law in 2006, said, "I'm disappointed that the justices laid out the case for why the law is unconstitutional and then stopped short of tossing it. I do feel optimistic, however, that the court's dim view ... means the law will not survive for the full length of its 25-year renewal."
"Perhaps the most important case of the term"
The court's avoidance of the constitutional question explains the consensus among justices in the case rendered Monday, where they otherwise likely would have split along conservative-liberal lines.
Justice Clarence Thomas, alone among his colleagues, said he would have resolved the case and held that the provision, known as Section 5, is unconstitutional. "The violence, intimidation and subterfuge that led Congress to pass Section 5 and this court to uphold it no longer remains," Thomas said.
Roberts himself noted that blacks and whites now register and turn out to vote in similar numbers and that "blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare."
He attributed a significant share of the progress to the law itself. "Past success alone, however, is not adequate justification to retain the preclearance requirement," Roberts said.
Still, the court did not decide that question in what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently described as "perhaps the most important case of the term."
The Voting Rights Act, first enacted in 1965, opened the polls to millions of black Americans. In 2006, the Republican-controlled Congress overwhelmingly renewed the part of the law which provided for the advance approval requirement for 25 years and President George W. Bush signed it.
The Austin utility district, backed by a conservative group opposed to the law, brought the court challenge. It said that either the district should be allowed to opt out or the entire provision should be declared unconstitutional.
Based on the tone of the questions when the case was argued in late April, many civil rights and election law experts predicted the Roberts-led court would indeed strike the measure down.
The court ruled instead on a provision of the law that allows a state or local government to seek to be free of the advance approval requirement.
The three-judge court in Washington, D.C., that originally decided the case said the utility district did not qualify as a local government that is eligible to bail out. The high court reversed that ruling Monday, saying "all political subdivisions" are eligible to file a bailout suit.
The Austin utility district is in the heart of Canyon Creek, an affluent suburb of about 3,500 residents that didn't break ground on its first house until the 1980s. About 80 percent of residents in Canyon Creek are white, according to the 2000 census.
As recently as 2002, voters in Canyon Creek used a neighbor's garage to cast their ballot in their utility board elections. The board wanted to change the polling location to a school, but first had to seek federal clearance.
The community got it, but Canyon Creek's board felt that needing approval from Washington was an unnecessary obstacle in a tiny neighborhood with no history of minority voter discrimination.