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Supreme Court Will Hear Challenge to Voting Rights Act
Coleman, a politically active lawyer who once clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas, testified to Congress in opposition to extending the Voting Rights Act in 2006. He recruited Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 for a test case after Congress extended the law for another 25 years.
The legislation has reached such iconic status that its extension was renamed for legends of the civil rights movement: It is the Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006.
The Senate passed the reauthorization unanimously, and the House had only 33 dissenting votes. President Bush signed the legislation, saying, "A generation of Americans that has grown up in the last few decades may not appreciate what this act has meant."
Even then, though, some Southern Republicans virtually invited a challenge, because of the length of the extension and because Congress did not reexamine which jurisdictions should be included in the legislation.
A special panel of three judges upheld the 2006 reauthorization, saying the "extensive legislative record documenting contemporary racial discrimination in voting in covered jurisdictions" justified Congress's action. It said the progress noted by challengers "is due in no small part to the Voting Rights Act itself."
The panel, in a comprehensive, 121-page decision written by Judge David S. Tatel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, said the proper way to judge Congress's actions was under a 1966 Supreme Court ruling that requires lawmakers only to show that the law was a "rational" response to the problem of voting discrimination.
But Tatel said Congress also met a more restrictive standard that the court articulated in 1997, requiring "congruence and proportionality" to the problem at hand.
Hasen, who advocated the extension of the law, said the case "will be the first chance to see Justice Roberts address the question of race and politics head-on."
As a Justice Department lawyer in the 1980s, Roberts wrote a memo opposing an extension of the act, although he said at his Supreme Court confirmation hearings that he merely had been stating the position of the Reagan administration.
But in his short tenure on the court, Roberts has shown himself to be a pithy critic of race-based policies. "It is a sordid business, this divvying us up by race," he wrote in a 2006 redistricting decision.
In a 2007 majority opinion limiting the use of racial classifications by school systems trying to promote desegregated classrooms, he wrote, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."
In the firefighter case, 19 white officers and one Hispanic sued New Haven after the city threw out a promotion exam because too few minorities scored high enough to merit moving up.
The firefighters said it was not fair that they would lose promotions simply because minorities did not score well on the test.
But city officials said their actions were justified because of fear that the test was biased against African Americans, and that they could be sued for using it to justify the promotions.
The cases are Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Mukasey and Ricci v. DeStefano, and they are likely to be argued in April.