- The Washington Times - Monday, June 22, 2009

In a narrow ruling Monday, the Supreme Court decided a small district in Texas is exempt from key provisions of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, but the court avoided ruling about whether the law itself was Constitutional.

“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,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the court’s opinion. “Quite the contrary: Our usual practice is to avoid the unnecessary resolution of constitutional questions.”

At issue is a provision from the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act that requires the Justice Department to approve any changes in voting procedures, such as moving polling locations or redistricting, in areas of 16 states that have a history of racial discrimination — almost exclusively in the South. The process for seeking such permission is known as “preclearance.”

The Voting Rights Act has never changed, but has been reauthorized by Congress several times, most recently in 2006 for another 25 years.

Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1, a five-member elected board in Texas created in 1987 which mainly manages financial issues, had tried to opt out of the requirements and sued the federal government. The district argued the law, meant to address Jim Crow-era discrimination, is outdated.

A lower court disagreed and the board appealed to the Supreme Court, where the case was argued in April.

While the court ruled unanimously to exempt the Texas board from the law’s provisions, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in a dissenting opinion that the law’s section relating to “preclearance” is unconstitutional.

“Covered jurisdictions are not now engaged in a systematic campaign to deny black citizens access to the ballot through intimidation and violence,” Justice Thomas wrote in his dissenting opinion. “Punishment for long past sins is not a legitimate basis for imposing a forward-looking preventative measure that has already served its purpose.”

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