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Supreme Court makes historic voting rights law harder to enforce

Bill Mears and Greg Botelho | 6/26/2013, 4:41 a.m.
Barbara Arnwine, President & Executive Director of the national Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law ... says the SCOTUS ruling on voting rights undercuts a "great preventative stop sign" against voter suppression. She talked to the press on Tuesday, June 25, 2013 after the SCOTUS reached their decision. Paul Courson/CNN

— It was a law passed at the height of America's civil rights movement, when citizens in parts of the country were fighting each other and sometimes authorities over how skin color impacts a person's place in a democracy.

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in a 5-4 decision that key parts of that law, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, were no longer valid. The prevailing opinion leaves it up to Congress to revise the law, so that it's constitutional in the minds of a majority of justices.

The main reason for the decision, Chief Justice John Robert explained, was that "our country has changed" for the better. The deplorable conditions that spurred Congress five decades ago requiring certain parts of the United States to "preclear" changes to voting laws "no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions."

The formula that Congress enacted in 2006, to determine which areas are covered by the act, have "no logical relation to the present day," Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.

"While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy the problem speaks to the current conditions," he said.

Officials in places like Selma County, Alabama, hailed the ruling. But President Barack Obama and others in his administration did not, nor did civil rights leaders.

John Lewis is one of them. Born to sharecroppers in Alabama in 1940, he became a leader in the civil rights movement, working with the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. In March of 1965, he led hundreds protesting voting rights in Alabama when they were confronted by Alabama authorities after crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma -- an incident that became known as "Bloody Sunday."

Now a U.S. representative from Georgia, Lewis said what happened then is relevant now, claiming "numerous attempts to impede voting rights" nationwide still need to be addressed. To him, the high court decision -- which he said "stuck a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act" -- is personal.

"These men never stood in unmovable lines," said Lewis, speaking of the justices. "They were never denied the right to participate in the democratic process. They were never beaten, jailed, run off their farms or fired from their jobs.

"No one they knew died simply trying to register to vote. They are not the victims of gerrymandering or contemporary unjust schemes to maneuver them out of their constitutional rights," Lewis said.

What the ruling says

The case arrived at the Supreme Court because officials in Shelby County filed suit against the federal government. The suit said monitoring of voting procedures under the law -- including the formula to determine which areas it applied to, which was reauthorized seven years ago -- was overly burdensome and unwarranted.

The appeal presented the court and its slim conservative majority with two of the most hotly debated issues in politics and constitutional law: race and federalism.

It was a major test of Washington's authority and the extent to which the federal government may consider vestiges of voting discrimination that may still linger, potentially keeping some minority voters disenfranchised.