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Justices Deliver Narrow Ruling on Voting Rights Act

June 22, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The Supreme Court delivered a tightly focused ruling Monday in a challenge to the landmark Voting Rights Act, exempting a small Texas governing authority from a key provision of the law but avoiding a larger constitutional issue. Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal examines the decision.
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: It was another busy day at the court. The justices handed down several opinions, including one of the most highly anticipated of the term. In an 8-1 ruling, the court let stand a key provision of the civil rights-era law designed to provide equal access at the voting booth.

Here to tell us more about that decision, among others, is Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal.

And, Marcia, at the heart of today’s ruling were questions about Section Five of the Voting Rights Act. What is that?

MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal: Section Five is considered almost the heart of the Voting Rights Act. It requires covered jurisdictions — those are government bodies with a history of voting discrimination — to get permission from the attorney general of the United States or a federal court whenever it wants to make any voting changes. Congress has renewed Section Five four times, most recently in 2006 for an additional 25 years.

RAY SUAREZ: So the case that came up — that was ruled on today, this involved a Texas jurisdiction?

MARCIA COYLE: It did. There is a municipal utility district in Texas, and it brought the case to the Supreme Court with basically two questions. One, it said, it wanted to know if it qualified for what is known as bailout of Section Five. There is a provision that allows these jurisdictions to bail out of Section Five’s permission requirements if they meet certain standards. And the utility district said, If you find we don’t in the alternative, hold Section Five unconstitutional.

RAY SUAREZ: So 8-1, not a close call. What was the decision?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, there is a judicial doctrine, Ray, known as constitutional avoidance. And it says that courts should try — always try to resolve a case on non-constitutional grounds and interpret the Constitution only when there’s no other option.

Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the decision today, said he was applying that doctrine. He could — the court could resolve this case on the bailout question alone.

The court examined the bailout provision, decided that the federal government and the courts had interpreted it so narrowly that it was virtually a nullity. He noted that only 17 jurisdictions since 1982 out of roughly 2,000 had ever been allowed to bail out of the law. He said that prevents — that means the court could avoid ruling on the big constitutional question involving Section Five.

RAY SUAREZ: So it answered just the petition of this Texas utility and didn’t attempt to make any wider law in this ruling?

MARCIA COYLE: That’s correct. It said the utility was eligible to apply for bailout.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, who was the lone dissenter? Who was the one?

MARCIA COYLE: Justice Thomas. He said he would have found that the Section Five provision was unconstitutional. And he said he would find that because he felt the pattern of discrimination that allowed the court to uphold Section Five in previous years no longer exists. He felt Congress did not provide current evidence of discrimination in those covered jurisdictions to justify extending Section Five.

 

'Problems with Section Five'

RAY SUAREZ: Now, a lot of the editorializing around this argument, the smart money, the conventional wisdom was for a Section Five overturn, because this was a pretty tough argument, wasn't it?

MARCIA COYLE: It was. In fact, many of us who attended came out, and many civil rights groups, as well, came out of the argument believing Section Five was going down.

But the majority opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, a good portion of it was devoted to what he called serious constitutional problems with Section Five. And he pointed out what I think he views as the main flaw.

The data used by Congress to justify extending Section Five, he said, was now more than 35 years old. He said, This act imposes current burdens that need to be justified by current needs.

So it was a shot across the bow of Congress, I think, to do something before the next challenge comes before the Supreme Court. He said the court would not shirk its constitutional duty.

RAY SUAREZ: So there are states, mostly across the South...

MARCIA COYLE: That's right.

RAY SUAREZ: ... still operating under the provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Is this just a question of time until a test case comes up that really forces the justices to rule on the continuation of the Voting Rights Act?

MARCIA COYLE: I believe it is. And I think it's important to note that most of the states that are covered by the Voting Rights Act did file an amicus brief in this case supporting Section Five, not only because they believed there was a continued need for it, but they felt, without it, there could be backsliding.

But there was one state, Georgia, whose governor filed a brief attacking the constitutionality of Section Five. All it would take would be for a covered jurisdiction to be denied permission on a voting change to bring another challenge.

Special education decision

RAY SUAREZ: There was also a special education and public schools ruling today. Tell us about that.

MARCIA COYLE: This case involves the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the IDEA law. And in this case, there was a student in high school who, in his first two years, was doing progressively worse. The school district evaluated him and found he was not eligible for special education services.

At the end of his sophomore year, his parents got a private evaluation, and the private evaluation, which a hearing officer later agreed with, found that he would do better in a very structured environment and that he did have a learning disability complicated by other problems.

Parents pulled him out of public school, put him in a private school, and then sought reimbursement for the costs of the private school from the school district.

RAY SUAREZ: And did they get it?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, they did today. The court said that, if a court found or a hearing officer found that the school district failed to provide what is called a free and appropriate public education, and the private placement is appropriate, then the law does authorize reimbursement regardless of whether the parents first tried the school district.

RAY SUAREZ: This was a 6-3 case.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it a law that's going to get wide application? Are there a lot of kids in this boat?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, I think we'll have to wait and see. The Department of Justice said that the number of special ed kids in private placement really hasn't changed much over the last two decades. In 2007, 1.1 percent of nearly 6 million special ed students were in private placement.

Miranda warnings

RAY SUAREZ: Well, there's going to be another day in court for the Miranda warnings, when someone gets arrested?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, yes, that's right. This case takes a look at, what is actually required when police give the Miranda warnings? And we're very familiar with, "You have the right to remain silent." The right to a lawyer -- this is what this case will focus on -- the lower court, a Florida court here held that the police erred by saying to someone who had been arrested that you have a right to talk a lawyer before we ask you any questions.

The Florida court said that didn't tell the person arrested that he also had a right to be -- a lawyer being present during the questioning. And that's what the Supreme Court is going to have to decide.

RAY SUAREZ: Marcia Coyle, thanks a lot.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure, Ray.