A predictably divided Supreme Court appeared ready to strike down--at least in part--the key enforcement provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, with many conservative justices on Wednesday suggesting it was a constitutionally unnecessary vestige of the civil rights era.
Known as Section 5, it gives the federal government open-ended oversight of states and localities mostly in the South with a history of voter discrimination. Any changes in voting laws and procedures in all or parts of 16 covered states must be "pre-cleared" with Washington.
That could include something as simple as moving a polling place temporarily across the street. The provision was reauthorized by Congress in 2006 for another 25 years, and officials in Shelby County, Ala., subsequently filed suit, saying the monitoring was overly burdensome and unwarranted.
In a tense 80 minutes of oral arguments, Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked why the court would rule "in favor of the county that is the epitome" of what caused the law to be passed in the first place.
Her three reliably liberal colleagues appeared to support continued use of the coverage formula run by the federal Justice Department. But Justice Samuel Alito wondered why some states were subject to oversight and not others.
"Why shouldn't it apply everywhere in the country," he asked.
The other four more conservative justices had tough questions for the Obama administration's positions.
A ruling in this appeal is expected by June.
Justice Antonin Scalia produced gasps in the courtroom when he reiterated concerns by some observers that reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act by lawmakers seven years ago was due in part to political expediency.
"I think it is attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement. It's been written about. Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes," he said. "I don't think there is anything to be gained by any senator to vote against continuation of this act. And I am fairly confident it will be reenacted in perpetuity unless a court can say it does not comport with the Constitution," he said.
Civil rights groups say Section 5 has proven an important tool to protect minority voters from local governments that would set unfair, shifting barriers to the polls. If it is ruled unconstitutional, they warn, the very power and effect of the entire Voting Rights Act would crumble.
In an article special to CNN, NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous, and Penda Hair, co-director of Advancement Project, outlined five key misconceptions about the Voting Rights Act and why it remains as relevant today as the day it was originally signed:
(1) Section 5 unfairly punishes the South for its past.
This provision of the Voting Rights Act requires jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting practices to get federal "pre-clearance." This applies to not just Southern states, but also to other states such as Alaska, Arizona, along with certain counties in New York, Michigan, South Dakota, New Hampshire and California. Once a state has demonstrated it can fairly run elections for a period of 10 years, it can be exempted from Section 5.