WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled narrowly Monday in a challenge to the landmark Voting Rights Act, siding with a small Texas governing authority but sidestepping the larger constitutional issue.
The court, with only one justice in dissent, avoided the major questions raised over the federal government’s most powerful tool to prevent discriminatory voting changes since the mid-1960s.
The law requires all or parts of 16 states, mainly in the South, with a history of discrimination in voting to get approval in advance of making changes in the way elections are conducted.
The court said that the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 in Austin, Texas, can apply to opt out of the advance approval requirement, reversing a lower federal court that found it could not. The district would appear to meet the requirements to bail out, although the court did not pass judgment Monday on that point.
Five months after Barack Obama took office as the nation’s first African American president, Chief Justice John Roberts said the justices decided not to determine whether dramatic civil rights gains means the advance approval requirement is no longer necessary. That larger issue, Roberts said, “is a difficult constitutional question we do not answer today.”
“The fact is, the case was filed to tear the heart out of the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act and that effort failed today,” said Debo Adegbile, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund lawyer who argued for the preservation of the law at the high court.
The court’s avoidance of the constitutional question explains the consensus among justices in the case rendered Monday, where they otherwise likely would have split along conservative-liberal lines.
Justice Clarence Thomas, alone among his colleagues, said he would have resolved the case and held that the provision, known as Section 5, is unconstitutional.
“The violence, intimidation and subterfuge that led Congress to pass Section 5 and this court to uphold it no longer remains,” Thomas said.
Roberts himself noted that blacks and whites now register and turn out to vote in similar numbers and that “blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare.”
He attributed a significant share of the progress to the law itself.
“Past success alone, however, is not adequate justification to retain the preclearance requirement,” Roberts said.
Still, the court did not, on Monday, decide that question in what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently described as “perhaps the most important case of the term.”
The Voting Rights Act, first enacted in 1965, opened the polls to millions of black Americans. In 2006, the Republican-controlled Congress overwhelmingly renewed the part of the law that provided for the advance approval requirement for 25 years and President George W. Bush signed it.
The Austin utility district, backed by a conservative group opposed to the law, brought the court challenge.
It said that either it should be allowed to opt out or the entire provision should be declared unconstitutional.
Based on the tone of the questions when the case was argued in late April, many civil rights and election law experts predicted the Roberts-led court would indeed strike the measure down.
The court ruled instead on a provision of the law that allows a state or local government to seek to be free of the advance approval requirement.
The three-judge court that originally decided the case said the utility district did not qualify as a local government that is eligible to bail out. The high court reversed that ruling Monday, saying “all political subdivisions” are eligible to file a bailout suit.
The Austin utility district is in the heart of Canyon Creek, an affluent suburb of about 3,500 residents that didn’t break ground on its first house until the 1980s. About 80 percent of residents in Canyon Creek are white, according to the 2000 Census.
As recently as 2002, voters in Canyon Creek used a neighbor’s garage to cast their ballot in their utility board elections. The board wanted to change the polling location to a school, but first had to seek federal clearance.
The community got it, but Canyon Creek’s board felt that needing approval from Washington was an unnecessary obstacle in a tiny neighborhood with no history of minority voter discrimination.
Associated Press writer Paul Weber in San Antonio, Texas, contributed to this report.