(WASHINGTON) — Conservative justices on the Supreme Court continued to express strong reservations Wednesday about Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, suggesting the key provision of the law might be in danger.
That section of the law says that certain states, mostly in the South, must get any changes to voting regulations pre-cleared by federal officials.
On the first day of arguments, Chief Justice John Roberts got to the heart of the debate. He asked whether the government thought that citizens in the South were “more racist” than citizens in the North.
He and Justice Samuel Alito noted several times that they believed the “coverage formula” Congress used in 2006 when it reauthorized the law for 25 years was outdated. Alito asked why Section 5 shouldn’t be applied everywhere in the country. He asked why Congress didn’t make a “new determination” of coverage.
Justice Anthony Kennedy asked why Act, Section 2, that applies to all states and places the burden on the person bringing the suit, shouldn’t be used instead.
Justice Antonin Scalia took note of the near-unanimous vote in Congress in 2006 and suggested that some in Congress will never vote against the reauthorization of Section 5. He asked whether Section 5 had to be considered “in perpetuity.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan had the toughest questions for a lawyer from Shelby County Alabama bringing the challenge.
Sotomayor said that while “some portion of the South has changed, your county pretty much hasn’t.” She called it the “epitome” of what was called for in Section Five.
Reverend Al Sharpton was one of several prominent civil rights advocates and protesters outside the court who stressed the continued importance of the Voting Rights Act and objected to any striking down of the law. Sharpton ended his remarks with: “They don’t use white sheets anymore, they use black robes.”
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