That prospect has worried civil rights groups which especially worry that changes on the local level might not get the same scrutiny as the actions of state legislatures.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by her three liberal colleagues, dissented from Tuesday’s ruling.
Ginsburg said no one doubts that voting discrimination still exists. “But the court today terminates the remedy that proved to be best suited to block that discrimination,” she said in a dissent that she read aloud in the packed courtroom.
Justice Clarence Thomas was part of the majority, but wrote separately to say again that he would have struck down the advance approval requirement itself.
The decision comes five months after President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black chief executive, started his second term in the White House, re-elected by a diverse coalition of voters.
The high court is in the midst of a broad re-examination of the ongoing necessity of laws and programs aimed at giving racial minorities access to major areas of American life from which they once were systematically excluded. The justices issued a modest ruling Monday that preserved affirmative action in higher education and will take on cases dealing with anti-discrimination sections of a federal housing law and another affirmative action case from Michigan next term.
The court warned of problems with the voting rights law in a similar case heard in 2009. The justices averted a major constitutional ruling at that time, but Congress did nothing to address the issues the court raised. The law’s opponents, sensing its vulnerability, filed several new lawsuits.
The latest decision came in a challenge to the advance approval, or preclearance, requirement, which was brought by Shelby County, Ala., a Birmingham suburb.
The lawsuit acknowledged that the measure’s strong medicine was appropriate and necessary to counteract decades of state-sponsored discrimination in voting, despite the Fifteenth Amendment’s guarantee of the vote for black Americans.