The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of a law designed to protect the rights of African Americans to vote, noting Tuesday it no longer applied to current political realities.
At issue is the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, which outlawed practices in the South used to keep blacks from voting as the Civil Rights Movement worked to ensure equal rights for all races.
Congress last extended the law in 2006, but a county in Alabama challenged a requirement that certain states with a history of racial segregation seek approval from the federal government before making any change to their own state voting laws.
The nine-member highest US court ruled 5-4 to strike down the part of the law that details which states and localities must seek federal approval before changing their voting laws.
It noted the formula that determines which jurisdictions must do so was based on conditions in the 1960s and 1970s and had not been updated to reflect advances in civil rights in the intervening decades.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the Voting Rights Act took necessary measures to address "an extraordinary problem" by addressing racial discrimination at the polls.
"There is no denying however that the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions," he said, noting turnout by African American voters was actually higher than white turnout in many states covered by the law.
The court, however, said Congress could continue to regulate changes in voting laws, but would first have to create a new formula to determine which jurisdictions must gain federal approval that reflects current conditions.
The court last upheld the law in 2009, but stopped short of ruling on the specific issue of whether some localities must clear their laws with the Justice Department.
The challengers had argued that Congress had not shown it was necessary to continue the law or weighed whether it remained necessary. They also claimed Congress had used an outdated formula in deciding which jurisdictions fall under the provision.
The government has argued that Congress, not the courts, must determine whether the legislation remains necessary and noted there are ways for jurisdictions to be exempt from the requirement to have their voting laws cleared.
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