Supreme Court Re-Examines 1965 Voting Rights Act Transcript

On this 100th day of the Obama presidency, the US Supreme Court took up a challenge to the landmark civil rights law that helped make the election possible. It's the Voting Rights Act, the work of President Lyndon Johnson, passed back in 1965. The question for the court today: Is the law still needed? Our NBC News justice correspondent Pete Williams has more.

PETE WILLIAMS reporting: In a dramatic US Capitol ceremony with Martin Luther King watching, Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

President LYNDON B. JOHNSON: (From file footage) Today is a triumph for freedom.

P. WILLIAMS: It tore down barriers to black voting that were spreading faster than civil rights groups could stop them. But now, with the election of the first African-American president and more minorities voting and holding office, challengers from Austin, Texas, say the law is too intrusive.

Mr. CHRIS WARD (Lawyer for Challengers): That part of the law was appropriate in 1965, and necessary and important to stop the bleeding. But after 40 years, its time has passed.

Unidentified Woman: Thank you very much.

P. WILLIAMS: It requires the Justice Department to review election rules in all or part of eight Southern states, and Arizona, Alaska and a scattering of areas with a history of vote discrimination. Its defenders say they've found over 1,000 attempts to limit minority voting in the past 25 years.

Mr. DEBO ADEGBILE (NAACP Legal Defense Fund): We've seen that discrimination takes root. It grows back. The weeds are still there, and the--and it will come back, and minority communities will be disadvantaged.

P. WILLIAMS: Today some on the court seem to agree. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Justice RUTH BADER GINSBURG: You start with the blatant, overt discrimination, and then, in time, the discrimination becomes more subtle, less easy to smoke out.

P. WILLIAMS: But the court's conservatives seemed troubled that the law does not apply in other states, where minority registration is actually lower than in the South. Justice Anthony Kennedy:

Justice ANTHONY KENNEDY: The question is whether or not it can be justified when other states are not covered today.

P. WILLIAMS: And Chief Justice John Roberts said the law was meant to be temporary.

Justice JOHN ROBERTS: I mean, at some point it begins to look like the idea is that this is going to go on forever.

P. WILLIAMS: The court has upheld the Voting Rights Act before, but this time the justices seem concerned that while times have changed, the law has not. Pete Williams, NBC News, at the Supreme Court.