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US top court weakens voting discrimination law

June 26, 2013 GMT
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Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., accompanied by fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus express disappointment in the Supreme Court's decision on Shelby County v. Holder that invalidates Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, Tuesday, June 25, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Lewis, a prominent activist in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960's, recalled being attacked and beaten trying to help people in Mississippi to register and vote in the 1960's. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
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Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., accompanied by fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus express disappointment in the Supreme Court's decision on Shelby County v. Holder that invalidates Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, Tuesday, June 25, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Lewis, a prominent activist in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960's, recalled being attacked and beaten trying to help people in Mississippi to register and vote in the 1960's. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A deeply divided U.S. Supreme Court threw out the most powerful part of the landmark law that forced open voting booths for minorities decades ago in the face of sometimes violent opposition in mostly Southern states, noting that the times have changed. President Barack Obama, the country’s first black chief executive, said he was “deeply disappointed” with the decision.

Split along ideological and partisan lines, the justices voted 5-4 Tuesday to halt enforcement of the requirement in the Voting Rights Act that all or parts of 15 states with a history of discrimination in voting get Washington’s approval before changing the way they hold elections.

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The Voting Rights Act was an emergency federal measure in 1965 — a turbulent time when it was not unusual for blacks to essentially be barred from voting in some parts of the country, and some civil rights activists on the issue were killed. The act was just one instance of the federal government stepping in during that era to make local governments obey the law and ensure equal rights for all.

Tuesday’s ruling, led by Chief Justice John Roberts writing for a conservative majority, was the most dramatic decision so far as the high court re-examines the necessity of laws and programs aimed at giving racial minorities access to areas from which they once were systematically excluded.

The U.S. racial landscape is rapidly changing. Census estimates look ahead to whites becoming a minority in coming decades.

Rights groups and the court’s dissenting liberal justices warned that discrimination still exists.

“The Supreme Court has effectively gutted one of the nation’s most important and effective civil rights laws. Minority voters in places with a record of discrimination are now at greater risk of being disenfranchised than they have been in decades,” said Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Obama, reelected last year with the strong support of black and Hispanic voters, called on Congress to reinvigorate the voting rights law.

“While today’s decision is a setback, it doesn’t represent the end of our efforts to end voting discrimination,” the president said. “I am calling on Congress to pass legislation to ensure every American has equal access to the polls.”

The requirement for federal approval for proposed election changes was put into the law to give federal officials a potent tool to defeat persistent efforts to keep blacks from voting. But coverage also has been triggered by past discrimination against American Indians, Asian-Americans, Alaska Natives and Hispanics.

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The requirement currently applies to the states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. It also covers certain counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota, and some local jurisdictions in Michigan.

Tuesday’s ruling came in a challenge brought by Shelby County, Alabama, a suburb of Birmingham — one of the Southern cities where the civil rights struggle played out in the 1960s.

The lawsuit acknowledged that the measure had been appropriate and necessary to counteract decades of state-sponsored discrimination in voting, but it asked whether there was any end in sight for a provision that intrudes on states’ rights to conduct elections.

Officials from the South had mixed reactions Tuesday.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, the only black lawmaker in Mississippi’s congressional delegation, said the ruling “guts the most critical portion of the most important civil rights legislation of our time.”

Alabama Gov. Bentley, a Republican, pointed to his state’s legislature — 27 percent black, similar to Alabama’s overall population — as a sign of the state’s progress.

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Associated Press writer Mark Sherman contributed.