By Mary Orndorff Troyan
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - South Carolina and a handful of other states have a lot at stake in a voting rights case to be argued before the Supreme Court on Wednesday.
For 48 years, the Justice Department has scrutinized each election procedure in the state, no matter how small, for evidence it might discriminate against minority voters. The case before the Supreme Court asks justices to declare that extra oversight an unfair and obsolete burden.
Wednesday's oral arguments will take an hour. The Supreme Court justices are expected to issue a ruling later this year.
The cases focuses on Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which requires all or parts of 16 states with a history of discrimination to get approval from the Justice Department or a federal court before making any change to their voting procedures.
Shelby County, Ala., the plaintiff in the case, will argue that Section 5 should be thrown out. Justice Department officials will argue it's the best defense against a return to the days when racism permeated election procedures in many parts of the country, particularly the South.
Civil rights groups plan to rally outside the Supreme Court building during the arguments. Many of the groups traveled by bus from cities and towns throughout the South.
Alabama state Sen. Hank Sanders of Selma says gains made by minority voters over the last 48 years are at risk.
"It is imperative that the public really know what's happening," said Sanders, an organizer of Freedom Riders for Voting Rights. The group will stop for a rally at the federal courthouse in Greenville on Thursday afternoon, on its way back to Selma.
Recent attempts by some states to require government-issued photo IDs to vote show "there are forces at work who would like to turn the clock back on all the gains that have been made because of the 1965 Voting Rights Act," U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, told MSNBC recently.
Shelby County and its supporters counter that it takes time and money for state and local election employees to comply with Section 5. That's one of the reasons South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson is supporting Shelby County's challenge.
Wilson and several other Southern Republicans also say the days of poll taxes and literacy tests are relics of the 1960s and the South can be trusted to run its elections fairly.
"Treating states differently no longer serves the act's purpose of eradicating voter discrimination for all United States citizens," according to court papers filed by South Carolina, Arizona, Georgia and South Dakota. "Section 5 was an important and necessary part of the effort to end voter discrimination in this country, but has now outlived its purpose."
Shelby County's case will be argued by Bert Rein, a Washington lawyer. In the county's final written arguments to the justices last week, Rein called Section 5 an "extraordinary federalism burden" that infringes on states' rights.
U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli will defend Section 5 as a vital tool for preventing discrimination at the ballot box before it starts.
Congress renewed Section 5 in 2006 for 25 years. Two lower federal courts have upheld the section, saying Congress evidently sees it as necessary to deter voting discrimination.
The Justice Department will share part of its half-hour of oral arguments with Debo Adegbile of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, who represents black citizens of Shelby County.
Civil rights and civil liberties organizations have sided with the Obama administration to defend the law, including the League of Women Voters of South Carolina and a handful of Democratic state legislators from South Carolina.
They say recent battles over voter ID laws and redistricting - some of which the Justice Department has blocked as unfair to minority voters under Section 5 - prove the section is still needed.
"We believe at the end of the day, when the court grapples with the record of continued discrimination and the events we have seen since Section 5 was reauthorized, there will no longer be a question about whether people are still willing to discriminate against minority voters," Adegbile said in a recent interview.