Before the current U.S. Supreme Court term ends in late June, the justices will decide the fate of the most potent part of a law widely considered the most important piece of civil rights legislation ever passed by Congress the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
If the court were to strike down part of the law, which it has signaled a willingness to do in the past, it would dramatically reduce the federal government's role in overseeing voter discrimination in a wide swath of the nation.
Signed by President Lyndon Johnson and renewed by Congress four times since then, most recently in 2006, a key provision requires states with a history of discrimination at the polls to get federal permission before making adjustments to their election procedures.
The requirement applies to major changes, such as redrawing congressional district boundaries, and minor ones, like moving the locations of polling places. The law was at the core of the legal battles last year that blocked strict new voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina.
Under the pre-clearance requirement, nine entire states, 12 cities and 57 counties elsewhere are presumed to be acting improperly whenever they seek election changes. They must get permission from either the Justice Department or a special panel of three federal judges.
Shelby County, Ala., is urging the Supreme Court to strike down two provisions of the Voting Rights Act the pre-clearance requirement and the map of covered jurisdictions.
"This is based on criteria that came from the 1964 presidential election. It's 47, 48 years old," says Frank "Butch" Ellis, the Shelby County attorney.
"The South has changed in that 48 years. It's not current. It's not relevant anymore," he says.
The areas covered by the law, Shelby County argues, include localities that have made substantial reforms but miss other parts of the nation that have failed to root out discrimination at the polls.
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