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Justices to Hear Challenge to Anti-Bias Law

Gov. Sonny Perdue wrote a brief that details Georgia's progress, in both voter participation by blacks and the election of African Americans.
Gov. Sonny Perdue wrote a brief that details Georgia's progress, in both voter participation by blacks and the election of African Americans. (By John Bazemore -- Associated Press)
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By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Conservative legal activists who mean to liberate the mostly Southern states that bear the biggest burden under the Voting Rights Act lack support from a key group:

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The mostly Southern states that bear the biggest burden under the Voting Rights Act.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments this morning in one of its biggest cases of the year, a suit that seeks to declare unconstitutional a key provision of the voting act. It is considered the most severe federal intrusion on state autonomy, but none of the states subject to it has joined the fight.

The closest has been Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R), whose personal brief supporting the challenge was filed by a private lawyer because the state's attorney general refused to do it. Alabama filed a brief frankly acknowledging its racist past and touting its racial progress but stopped short of advising the court what to do.

However, two of the nine states that must abide by the act's directive -- requiring that even the smallest change in their voting laws or procedures must be preapproved by federal authorities -- lined up with the government in defending the law. They were joined by four other states where some jurisdictions are covered by that requirement.

The states "recognize that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act has allowed our nation to make substantial progress toward eliminating voting discrimination," said the brief filed by Mississippi, Louisiana, North Carolina, California, Arizona and New York. "More, however, remains to be done."

The law's acceptance reflects both its powerful symbolic resonance and the practical fact that both major political parties have found ways to use it to their advantage. When Congress in 2006 extended for 25 years what had been passed in 1965 as a temporary emergency remedy, only a handful of representatives and no senators objected. President George W. Bush signed the extension in time to tout it at an appearance before the NAACP.

"There's been an adaptation to the Voting Rights Act; it's now baked in the cake," said Emory University political scientist Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics. "It's hugely important for the Democratic Party, and [opposing it] is a no-win issue for Republicans."

Both major political parties have found ways to incorporate the Voting Rights Act into redistricting decisions that benefit them. The byproduct of drawing districts that contain enough minorities to ensure a victory for a Democratic African American, for instance, is the creation of suburban, white and conservative districts that are key to Republican congressional success.

The case before the court was not filed on behalf of a state, or even a county or city, but by a tiny municipal utility district in a neighborhood of Austin. The Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One agreed to be the test case for a challenge filed by its lawyer, Gregory S. Coleman, who will be arguing the second of two major cases this session involving government policies on race.

Last week, he represented white firefighters from New Haven, Conn., who say the city threw out the results of promotion tests because no African Americans qualified.

Coleman, a quiet and unflappable litigator who once clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas, said in an interview that the states' reluctance to step into the fight should not be seen as a belief that Section 5 is warranted. "The states have many partisan reasons" for not contesting their inclusion, he said.


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