Previously, they agreed to hear challenges to affirmative-action laws.
Now the majority of the members of the court — or maybe all of them; the vote was in secret — have agreed to hear a challenge to the provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That act required much of the South — states, cities and counties — to get advanced approval, or “pre-clearance,” from Washington before it can make any changes in election laws and voting rules.
From the time it was enacted, this section of the Voting Rights Act irritated many white Southerners. Giving the federal government the authority over state and local elections seemed to violate the dearly held principle of state rights. It also singled out the South while letting political units in the North escape such supervision.
Additionally, it vexed some white Southerners because the law and its pre-clearance provision were clearly needed at the time it was passed. The South’s record of denying voting rights to minorities was well-documented and dismal.
However, a lot has changed in Dixie since that time. Today, blacks and whites in the South register to vote at about the same percentage of their respective populations. Moreover, a higher percentage of blacks vote in some of the states still under federal scrutiny than in northern states, and they elect more African-Americans to local offices.
Still, there are those in the South who argue that the rest of the nation does not recognize the progress that has been made. That’s why a nearly unanimous Congress six years ago extended the Voting Rights Act and the pre-clearance provision for another 25 years.
What the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear is an Alabama case from Shelby County challenging to the pre-clearance rule.
Apparently, the act’s constitutionality is not an issue. Most constitutional scholars agree it is a valid exercise of federal authority.
Instead, the challenge will focus on how far the South has come in complying with the act and whether the South has gone far enough for the pre-clearance rule can be abandoned. But once the court begins deliberations, the case might broaden to include other aspects some people feel should be considered under the act — voter-ID laws as a way to suppress minority voting, for example.
The highest court in the land will measure if there‘s been sufficient progress over time for what the South has done in protecting the votes of all citizens. The best we can hope for are justices with an open mind willing to tamp down their activism.