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US Supreme Court takes up voting rights law

The US Supreme Court on Wednesday appeared ready to overturn, at least in part, a voting rights law that guards against racial discrimination in US states with a segregationist past.

At issue is the 1965 law's Section 5, which requires nine mainly southern states and local governments in seven other states to obtain Justice Department approval for any changes in their electoral codes.

"We shouldn't treat states differently," said ultra-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who suggested that keeping the nearly half-century-old law intact would amount to a "perpetuation of racial entitlement."

The law, which bars all racial discrimination at the polls, is opposed by some states which see it as outmoded, but a number of civil rights organizations argue it is still needed.

"Though there have been improvements, this past election has shown that the law is not outdated and sadly continues to be extremely necessary," said Caroline Fredrickson, head of the American Constitution Society.

Texas, for one, has faced repeated Justice Department challenges to its election redistricting laws as well as a state law requiring voters to present photo identification.

In both instances, a federal appeals court in Washington ruled that the provisions were "discriminatory," and now Texas is waiting to argue its position before the Supreme Court.

Although several states have challenged the law's Section 5, the Supreme Court is considering just one, a complaint brought by Shelby county in Alabama.

The case has come to the Supreme Court months after the re-election of the first black US president, Barack Obama -- something critics point to as evidence that the law is unnecessary.

"The violence, intimidation, and subterfuge that led Congress to pass Section 5 and this court to uphold it no longer remains," Shelby County's brief says.

The county points out that 83 percent of its 200,000 inhabitants are white, a demographic mix that it contends puts it above suspicion of racial discrimination.

It maintains that Section 5 should be thrown out, complaining that the Obama administration is enforcing it with greater zealousness than in the past.

Without commenting on the law's effectiveness in the past, conservative Chief Justice John Roberts questioned whether "differential treatment continues to be justified," saying it would imply "citizens in the South are more racist than citizens in the North."

"The Marshall plan was very good, too, but things have changed," said Justice Anthony Kennedy, another conservative, referring to the massive aid given to Western European countries following World War II.

Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, however, likened racial discrimination to "a disease. It's getting a lot better but it's still there. If you have a remedy, let's keep it," he said.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the only Hispanic justice, asked why the court should strike down a formula that works just because "some portions of the South have changed."

Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, who made the administration's case for leaving the law untouched, said the system of federal pre-clearance for electoral reforms in these states is "the principal engine of that progress."

Elena Kagan, another liberal justice, questioned whether the court "has the power to decide whether racial discrimination is over."

More than 20 religious, civic and human rights groups have called on the top court to confirm Section 5's constitutionality as "the heart of the voting rights act," as the NAACP, the country's most prominent black civil rights organization, put it.

The law "has played a key role in protecting our democracy and ensuring the vitality of the right of minorities to vote and fully participate in the political process," said NAACP president Sherrilyn Ifill.

Defenders of the law rested their arguments on the Constitution's 15th amendment, which bans racial discrimination at the polls.

The nine-member court left the law alone the last time they reviewed it in 2009, but strongly urged Congress to reform it on the grounds that "things have changed in the South."

It also expressed concern that it puts states' rights at the mercy of the federal government, despite protections afforded by the 10th amendment.

The federal government for its part has called on the justices to consider that Congress in 2006 extended the law for another 30 years.

This time, however, the top court could prove deaf to those appeals because Congress failed to heed its warning.

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