Supreme Court Narrowly Allows 1965 Voting Rights Act to Stand Transcript

BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: At the US Supreme Court in Washington today, a big ruling involving race and politics and the fundamental right to vote. This has to do with the Voting Rights Act pushed through, passed by President Johnson during the civil rights struggle in the mid-'60s. Now, with an African-American president in the White House, and with minority voting at historic highs, some have argued this law isn't necessary anymore. Today the Supreme Court let the law stand, but it might be on borrowed time. Our justice correspondent Pete Williams, live for us at the court building tonight.

Pete, good evening.

PETE WILLIAMS reporting: Brian, civil rights leaders say they're relieved, but they're hardly celebrating. The Court today suggested that the Voting Rights Act might not survive future legal attacks.

The ruling leaves standing a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, despite claims from challengers that with the election of the first African-American president and more minorities voting and holding office, federal intrusion in local elections can no longer be justified.

Mr. JOHN PAYTON (NAACP Legal Defense Fund): Even if some of it was grudging acknowledgment about the continued effect of the Voting Rights Act, it was acknowledgment nonetheless of how important it is.

P. WILLIAMS: The law requires federal approval of any changes in local election rules in all or part of eight Southern states, along with Arizona, Alaska and other areas with a history of voter discrimination. Back when the case was argued in April, the Court seemed prepared to strike it down entirely. Chief Justice Roberts, for example, said Congress originally meant the law to be temporary.

Justice JOHN ROBERTS: They said five years originally. And then another 20 years. And I mean, at some point it begins to look like the idea is that this is going to go on forever.

P. WILLIAMS: But today the court ducked the constitutional challenge. Instead it gave local governments greater authority to bail out of the law's requirements if they can show they're free of discrimination. Even so, the court's opinion by Chief Justice Roberts suggested the Voting Rights Act is on thin ice. "Things have changed in the South," he wrote. "Blacks now register and vote at higher rates than whites," he said, in some covered states. Roberts said the historic accomplishments of the law are undeniable, but he said the federal burdens it imposes, quote, "must be justified by current needs." The court's ruling was unanimous on giving local governments more power to bailout. Only Justice Clarence Thomas voted to declare it all unconstitutional. But many legal experts say the ruling's faint praise for the law is a warning.

Mr. TOM GOLDSTEIN (Appeals Court Lawyer): This decision is a shot across the bow of the Voting Rights Act. It's a notice to Congress that they need to narrow the statute's application or it's going to get struck down in the next lawsuit.

P. WILLIAMS: And in another ruling today, the courts made it easier for parents to send their children with learning disabilities to private schools at public expense if the public school cannot provide an adequate education. Brian:

B. WILLIAMS: Pete Williams, decision day at the Supreme Court. Pete, thanks.