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Supreme Court strikes down Voting Rights Act provision

WASHINGTON -- A divided U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday threw out a core part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, rolling back a landmark law that opened the polls to millions of southern blacks.

The justices, voting 5-4, said Congress lacked grounds for requiring some states, and not others, to get federal approval before changing their election rules. The ruling effectively invalidates that requirement while leaving open the possibility that Congress could enact a new method for determining which states are covered.

The ruling marks one of the biggest civil rights decisions in decades. It's the boldest step yet by Chief Justice John Roberts' conservative majority to cut back legal protections that have benefited racial minorities since the 1960s. The decision blocks a tool the Justice Department has used to halt thousands of state and local voting changes, including identification laws in Texas and South Carolina last year.

"Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions," Roberts wrote for the court.

In South Dakota, the Voting Rights Act covered the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Indian reservations.

The court Monday ordered tougher judicial scrutiny of university affirmative action programs.

Tuesday's ruling may have an immediate effect in Texas. The state is asking the Supreme Court to revive its voter-ID law, which the Justice Department blocked.

Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito joined Roberts in the majority. Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented.

At issue was the Voting Rights Act's preclearance requirement, under which all or parts of 15 states must get federal approval before changing election districts, amending voting rules or even moving a polling place. The Justice Department used that provision, which covers virtually the entire South, to object to more than 2,400 state and local voting changes from 1982 to 2006.

The majority faulted Congress for relying on a decades-old formula for determining which states were covered by the preclearance requirement, also known as Section 5. The formula ties coverage to voter registration rates, turnout and ballot-box rules in the 1960s and early 1970s.

The court left Section 5 itself intact. Thomas wrote that he would have invalidated that as well.

"Those extraordinary and unprecedented features were reauthorized -- as if nothing had changed," Roberts wrote. "In fact, the act's unusual remedies have grown even stronger."

Congress reauthorized the law in 2006, extending it for 25 years on lopsided votes: 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House. Then-President George W. Bush, a Republican, signed the measure into law.

"After exhaustive evidence-gathering and deliberative process, Congress reauthorized the VRA, including the coverage provision, with overwhelming bipartisan support," wrote Ginsburg, who read a summary of her dissent from the bench to give it added emphasis. "In my judgment, the court errs egregiously by overriding Congress's decision."

The Voting Rights Act was enacted to combat discrimination that kept black people away from Southern polling places for generations. A separate section of the law bars voting discrimination nationwide and isn't affected by the high court case.

The Obama administration said the formula originally was reverse-engineered to include the jurisdictions Congress wanted to cover. In 2006, lawmakers simply left the formula intact so that the same jurisdictions would continue to be covered, the administration argued.

The administration contended that the reauthorization was a legitimate use of Congress's power under the Constitution's 14th and 15th Amendments to combat racial discrimination.

The coverage formula was designed to include the states with the deepest history of discrimination -- Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia. Three other states -- Alaska, Arizona and Texas -- were added in the 1970s when the statute was expanded to protect "language minority" groups.

Congress let some areas escape coverage if they can show compliance with anti-discrimination rules. Lawmakers also let judges put other areas under the preclearance system.

Section 5 eventually came to govern a patchwork of jurisdictions around the country. Parts of some covered states are exempt, while selected cities and counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota and Michigan were covered.

Supporters of Section 5 said before the ruling that its elimination would let state and local governments revive discriminatory voting changes that were previously either blocked or deterred.

"The Supreme Court has effectively gutted one of the nation's most important and effective civil rights laws," Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, said in a statement. The Washington-based advocacy group helped defend the law.

The law was challenged by Shelby County, Ala., which said Congress had failed to show that the law was still needed.

The Supreme Court upheld the preclearance requirement on four previous occasions as a legitimate means of enforcing the 15th Amendment, which bars states from restricting voting on the basis of race.

In a fifth case, in 2009, the court hinted that Section 5's days were numbered, saying it raised "serious constitutional questions." The court avoided the constitutional question in that decision, instead reaching a compromise that let more local governments seek an exemption from the preclearance rule.

Congress had previously reauthorized the measure in 1970, 1975 and 1982.

During arguments in February, Scalia said the near-unanimity among lawmakers in reauthorizing the law was "very likely attributable to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement."