WASHINGTON — A nearly unified Supreme Court on Monday opened an escape valve for political jurisdictions that are seeking relief from anti-discrimination scrutiny, but the justices stopped short of striking down a historic voting-rights law.
In a closely watched case, the court ruled that a small Texas utility district could get out from under Justice Department oversight when making election-related changes. The ruling will allow political entities in 16 mostly Southern states to similarly escape federal control established by the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
"Things have changed in the South," Chief Justice John G. Roberts wrote. "Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels."
After a big buildup, the court's unexpectedly narrow ruling "allows just everybody involved in the case to declare victory," noted University of Michigan law professor Ellen Katz, a voting rights expert. Still, Sharon L. Browne of the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation called the narrow ruling "disappointing," while Laughlin McDonald, the director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project, voiced satisfaction that "the Supreme Court declined that invitation" to strike down the Voting Rights Act.
All nine justices agreed that the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One could escape the so-called "pre-clearance" requirements of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 of the law requires thousands of political subdivisions to obtain prior Justice Department approval for changes that range from switching polling places to redrawing district boundaries.
Only Justice Clarence Thomas urged that the law's requirements be struck down outright. Conservative groups such as the Sacramento, Calif.-based Pacific Legal Foundation likewise had urged the court to strike down the pre-clearance requirements as unconstitutional, but the court's majority rallied around a narrow decision.
"That constitutional question has attracted ardent briefs from dozens of interested parties, but the importance of the question does not justify our rushing to decide it," Roberts wrote.
"The Supreme Court's decision to leave in place Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act marks a victory for voting rights in America," Attorney General Eric Holder said.
Congress first included the pre-clearance requirements in the 1965 law in response to long-standing discrimination in Southern states. Congress has reauthorized the law several times since then, most recently in 2006.
Pre-clearance may be granted only if the jurisdiction demonstrates that the proposed change "neither has the purpose nor will have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color" or membership in a language minority group.
The pre-clearance requirements cover nine Southern states in their entireties. Seven other states, including California and North Carolina, are covered in part.
"Since 1982, only 17 jurisdictions — out of the more than 12,000 covered by political subdivisions — have successfully bailed out of the act," Roberts noted. "It is unlikely that Congress intended the (bailout) provision to have such limited effect."
The case decided Monday arose from a Texas subdivision called Canyon Creek. It's served by Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One, spanning just over 700 acres in northwestern Travis County. About 3,500 people now live in the subdivision.
When utility district officials wanted to move an election site from a garage to an elementary school, the pre-clearance requirements kicked in.
"At the very least, jurisdictions like . . . Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One that can demonstrate a history of respect for the voting rights of all residents must be allowed to remove the burden of federal pre-clearance," the utility district's attorney, Gregory Coleman, said in a legal brief.
To escape the pre-clearance requirement, a political subdivision must apply to a three-judge panel in Washington. A lower court had concluded that the Northwest Austin utility district wasn't the kind of "political subdivision" that was permitted to seek relief because, unlike a state or county, it didn't register voters.
Under the ruling Monday, any jurisdiction that's covered by the Voting Rights Act pre-clearance requirements can apply to escape them.
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