Supreme Court to Weigh Relevance of Voting Rights Act in Obama Era

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 1, 2009

AUSTIN -- America's next great battle over civil rights could hardly have a less controversial flash point: the benign decision to move the neighborhood polling place from Jack Stueber's garage to the local

elementary school.

But because Stueber's garage is in Texas, and because Texas once systematically discriminated against its black and Latino citizens, and because Congress wants to make sure that it never does again, elections in the handsome neighborhood called Canyon Creek are a federal issue.

The Supreme Court will consider this month whether the neighborhood's tiny utility board should continue to be among the states and local governments that bear the Voting Rights Act's heaviest burden -- pre-clearance by federal authorities for even the smallest changes in election laws and procedures -- and whether Congress exceeded its authority in 2006 by extending the restrictions for 25 years.

Each time the court has reviewed the law since it was first passed 44 years ago, it has agreed with Congress that the restrictions are warranted. But this time around, a question hangs over the case that is not found in law books:

Is a law conceived in the time of Jim Crow still relevant in the age of Barack Obama?

This has become a theme of the conservative activists who are challenging the law.

President Obama's election "stands as a remarkable testament to the tremendous progress this country has made in terms of racial equality and voting rights," the Pacific Legal Foundation and others said in a brief filed with the court.

To John Payton, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, it is a nonsensical argument.

"If you believe either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama would have beaten John McCain, one way or the other I guess we would have abolished gender discrimination or ended racial discrimination," Payton said. "If only there had been a black woman, I guess we could have gotten rid of both."

Gregory S. Coleman, the soft-spoken Austin lawyer and activist who is the lead attorney in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder, said he is not arguing that discrimination has been eliminated, only that government officials in one part of the country should not be presumed to discriminate, while officials in another are not.

"Nothing disappoints me more than to pick up media accounts about our case and to read that we're trying to do away with the Voting Rights Act," Coleman said in a recent interview in his downtown Austin office. "That's not what this case is about. This case is about making sure that the Voting Rights Act stands for the broad principles that we all have to treat each other as individuals."

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