The Supreme Court ruled that a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act is no longer constitutional, nullifying for now a pillar of civil-rights-era legislation.
The court struck down Section 4 of the law, which contains a decades-old formula that Congress used to identify areas of the country subject to stringent oversight of election procedures. Those areas, mostly in the South, must "pre-clear" voting changes with officials in Washington.
In the absence of that formula, Section 5 of the law, which puts the preclearance requirement into effect, cannot function.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the 5-4 ruling for the court, which was divided along its usual ideological lines.
The court didn't rule on two gay-marriage cases Tuesday. It said it would issue the final opinions of the 2012-13 term on Wednesday, when the gay-marriage rulings are expected to come.
Chief Justice Roberts said Congress failed to update the Voting Rights Act formula. "Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions," he wrote in a 24-page opinion.
The court said it wasn't issuing any ruling on Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. "Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions," Chief Justice Roberts wrote. However, that may be a difficult proposition in a deeply divided Congress.
As a result of the court's ruling, the Justice Department can now challenge a state or city's voting practices only after changes are made.
The case involved Shelby County in Alabama, which is subject to the extra oversight under the law.
Congress has repeatedly reauthorized the Voting Rights Act, most recently in 2006, when President George W. Bush signed bipartisan legislation extending it 25 years.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a 37-page dissent, joined by the three other members of the court's liberal wing. She said Congress's move in 2006 shouldn't be overridden by the courts. "In my judgment, the Court errs egregiously by overriding Congress' decision," she wrote.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the Supreme Court "has effectively struck down the core of the most successful piece of civil-rights legislation in this nation's history." He said he would take "immediate action" to reconstitute the Voting Rights Act in light of the ruling.
At the oral arguments in February, lawyers for Shelby County conceded that in 1965, Congress had plenty of evidence to indicate that white officials, largely throughout the South, routinely suppressed the black vote through a variety of discriminatory means.
But they argued that those practices don't exist today. The evidence Congress cited in 2006 in extending the law, they argued, failed to justify federal intrusion into such state and local matters as drawing electoral districts and adopting voter-identification requirements.
Bert Rein, a lawyer for Shelby County, observed that the Alabama Legislature has a proportionate number of black members, and black voter registration is far higher than it was 50 years ago. Forcing states to comply with Section 5 now demeans their right to "equal dignity" with states not covered by the law.
Such arguments fell upon some sympathetic ears, especially among the more conservative justices. "There is no question that the Voting Rights Act has done enormous good," said Justice Samuel Alito in February. But, he added, Congress may have failed to demonstrate that the practice known as "preclearance" remains justifiable today.
Others argued that the law continues to be an important tool to prevent discrimination in voting practices.
"It's hard to imagine that just a few years ago under President Bush the Voting Rights Act was extended in a strong, overwhelming bipartisan vote, and now unfortunately it is embroiled in political conflict," said Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) Tuesday shortly after the court's decision.
"I believe that the Voting Rights Act is essential to protect the voting rights of minority populations that have historically been the objects of discrimination. I think it should continue."