WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court's conservative justices voiced deep skepticism Wednesday about a section of a landmark civil rights law that has helped millions of Americans exercise their right to vote.
Liberal and conservative justices engaged in a sometimes tense back and forth over whether there is still a need in 2013 for a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure requires states with a history of discrimination against blacks, mainly in the Deep South, to get approval before making changes in the way elections are held.
Chief Justice John Roberts asked the government's top Supreme Court lawyer whether the Obama administration thinks Southerners "are more racist than citizens in the North."
The answer from Solicitor General Donald Verrilli was no.
The question, and others like it from the conservative justices, captured their deep skepticism about whether there remain appreciable differences between the places covered by the law and those that are not. They also questioned whether there was any end in sight for a provision that intrudes on states' rights to conduct elections.
The law was regarded as an emergency response to decades of state-sponsored discrimination in voting, despite the Constitution's Fifteenth Amendment guarantee of the vote for black Americans.
The provision was a huge success, and Congress periodically has renewed it over the years. The most recent time was in 2006, when a Republican-led Congress overwhelmingly approved and President George W. Bush signed a 25-year extension.
Coverage has been triggered by past discrimination not only against blacks, but also against American Indians, Asian-Americans, Alaskan Natives and Hispanics.
Congress overstepped its authority when it renewed the law and its formula that relied on 40-year-old data, without taking account of dramatic increases in the voter registration and participation by minorities, or of problems in places not covered by the law, lawyer Bert Rein said in his brief for Shelby County, Alabama, which challenged the law.
In court papers, Rein argued that "dire local conditions" that once justified strict federal oversight of elections no longer exist.
The court's four liberal justices aggressively questioned him.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor acknowledged some parts of the South had changed, but asserted that recent voting rights lawsuits in Alabama suggested that Shelby County has not made sufficient progress.
"Why would we vote in favor of your county whose enforcement record is the epitome of the reasons that cause this law to be passed in the first place?" Sotomayor said.
While the justices and lawyers uniformly praised the effectiveness of the advance approval requirement since it took effect in 1965, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the country passed other important laws that also ran their course. "Times change," he said.
If Kennedy sides with his four more conservative colleagues, there would be a five-justice majority to cut back on the law or get rid of it entirely.
The requirement currently applies to the states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. It also covers certain counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota, and some local jurisdictions in Michigan and New Hampshire.
Among the covered states, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, South Dakota and Texas are siding with Shelby County, while California, Mississippi, New York and North Carolina argue that the law should be upheld.
A decision is expected by late June.
Associated Press writer Mark Sherman contributed.