U.S. Supreme Court

Arizona no longer needs to get federal government sign-off on changes in its voting law.

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning overturned a section of the Voting Rights Act which said that certain states and counties with a history of discrimination must submit any alterations to the Department of Justice for preclearance. That list of nine states has included Arizona based on some of its practices dating as late as the 1960s.

Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, said there is no longer any basis for singling out some states for special treatment. But Roberts was careful to say that other sections of the Voting Rights Act survive -- and that this is not a license for states to enact new discriminatory laws. Roberts said the U.S. Constitution makes federal laws supreme and that state laws may not undermine them.

"The federal government does not, however, have a general right to review and veto state enactments before they go into effect,'' he wrote. In fact, Robert said, the Constitutional Convention considered such authority but rejected that, instead saying state laws should be allowed to take effect "subject to later challenge under the Supremacy Clause.''

And Roberts said states remain not only sovereignty but are constitutionally equal to each other. The problem here, Roberts said, is this provision of the Voting Rights Act applies to only some states. And that, he said, creates an inequity. For most states, changes in voting laws are put into effect immediately. If there is a challenge, it is up to the party contesting them to make the case and prove the discrimination.

The Voting Rights Act turns that on its head, Robert said, forcing Arizona and other affected states to first prove that any change is not discriminatory. Roberts acknowledged the high court upheld the law in 1966. But he said there were "exceptional circumstances'' at that time. That included the fact that some states had enacted various requirements and tests "specifically designed'' to prevent African-Americans from voting. And Roberts said case-by-case challenges "proved inadequate'' because the states that were sued "merely switched to discriminatory devices now covered by the federal decree'' or simply defined and evaded court orders.

Now, half a century later, Roberts said things have changed, at least in part (ITALICS) because (ROMAN) of the Voting Rights Act. Today's decision drew criticism from Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She pointed to the majority's concession that the formulas set by Congress to determine which states needed their voting laws precleared made sense when enacted. And Ginsburg agreed with Roberts that the Voting Rights Act has been a success in curbing discrimination. Ginsburg said today's ruling, in essence, said the success of all that means it is no longer needed, a conclusion she and three other justices refuse to accept. The original law covered states with things like literacy and knowledge tests and "good moral character'' requirements. Arizona was not part of the original law which initially covered six states and various counties, including one in Arizona. Several states were added in the 1970 renewal based on having a voting test and voter registration less than 60 percent.

Then in 1975, Congress extended the act again based on having a voting test and low voter turnout in more recent elections. More significant for Arizona was defining a voting "test'' to include providing English-only voting materials in places where more than 5 percent of voting-age citizens spoke a single language other than English.

That swept in Arizona as a "covered jurisdiction'' needing preclearance of voting law changes. But there had been allegations of harassment of black and Hispanic voters going back before then organized by the state Republican Party. Some of those came up initially during 1972 confirmation hearings of William Rehnquist to be a justice of the Supreme Court where there were reports he was involved in efforts to challenge minority voters at polling places. It became part of the hearings years later when he was nominated as chief justice.

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