Judges Uphold Voting Rights Act

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 31, 2008

A federal court yesterday rejected the first legal challenge to a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, in a case that legal scholars view as an important test of one of the country's seminal pieces of civil rights legislation.

The ruling came in a lawsuit brought by a municipal utility board in Texas, which argued that part of the law is costly and unconstitutional. Congress reauthorized the law in 2006.

The utility board is likely to appeal directly to the Supreme Court, offering opponents a chance to test the Voting Rights Act before a court that has grown more conservative in recent years.

"This has been about getting it to the Supreme Court," said Richard Hasen, a professor at Loyola University Law School in Los Angeles who specializes in election law. "Conservative opponents of the law have put a lot of eggs in this basket. This was set up as a test case."

Under the Voting Rights Act, any challenge to the law must be heard first by a three-judge panel of federal judges in Washington. The decision then can be appealed to the Supreme Court, bypassing appellate courts.

In a unanimous, 121-page opinion, two U.S. District Court judges and an appellate court judge found that the utility board is not entitled to an exemption from rigid requirements of the Voting Rights Act. It also ruled that Congress had acted appropriately in reauthorizing the law because of the "continuing problem of racial discrimination in voting."

Civil rights advocates hailed the decision, saying it reaffirmed the importance of a law widely credited with bringing down barriers to voting in states with a legacy of racial discrimination.

"This is one of the most important civil rights cases decided this year," John Payton, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in a statement.

Greg Coleman, the attorney who represented the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. One, said he is "looking very carefully at the possibility" of appealing the decision.

"The idea that people in Austin, Texas, are somehow more prejudiced than people in most of the country is just a false idea," he said.

Under the Voting Rights Act, certain parts of the country -- mostly in the South -- are subject to rigid requirements in how they handle voting. The utility board sought to move its polling places from a garage to a school, Coleman said. To do that, it had to seek permission from the Justice Department.

Coleman argued that obtaining such approval is costly and time-consuming, and discourages local governments from making changes that might benefit the community.

He also argued in court papers that portions of the law are unconstitutional because times have changed, and that Congress did not "specifically identify evidence of continued discrimination" in states or municipalities still covered by the act.

But the judges sided with the Justice Department, which argued in court papers that the reauthorization of the act "was a valid exercise" of congressional authority under the Constitution.

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