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Supreme Court Narrows Scope of Voting Rights Act

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WASHINGTON The U.S. Supreme Court last week narrowed the scope of the federal Voting Rights Act in a ruling that will allow local governments, including school boards, to shift decisionmaking authority without seeking approval of the federal government.

Noting that it was the first time the High Court had rejected the position of the Justice Department on the scope of the voting-rights law, civil-rights advocates denounced the 6-to-3 decision in two consolidated cases involving black county commissioners in Alabama.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 covers nine states and jurisdictions in seven other states that had a history of racial discrimination in voting practices.

The law requires local governments in the covered jurisdictions to get "preclearance" from the Justice Department or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia for any new "standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting."

The Supreme Court has previously held that the law applies to local school districts in the covered jurisdictions. For example, federal officials would scrutinize a switch from single-member districts to an at large school board for possible discriminatory effects on minority-voting representation.

In a Jan. 27 opinion in Presley v. Etowah County Commission and Mack v. Russell County Commission (Case Nos. 90-711 and 90-712), Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy tailored a narrow definition of what constitutes a voting standard, practice, or procedure.

The cases involved the election of black members to the previously all white county beards in Etowah and Russell counties. In Etowah County, county commissioners once controlled road maintenance funds for their districts. After a black commissioner was elected, the remaining white majority voted in 1987 to strip individual authority over road funds from the commissioners and put the money into a common fund under majority control.

In Russell County, road authority once held by the commissioners was shifted to the county engineer several years before the election of two blacks to the county board.

6-to-3 Vote

All three black elected officials challenged the counties' decisions not to seek Justice Department approval of the shift in authority under the Voting Rights Act. The Justice Department sided with the black officials in arguments before the High Court.

"Changes that affect an elected official's authority to make decisions-to legislate, tax, spend, set school curricula, approve road and bridge projects, and so forth--go to the core of the citizen's voting power," Solicitor General Kenneth W. Starr wrote in a brief filed with the Court.

Justice Kennedy, in a opinion joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Associate Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, David H. Souter, and Clarence Thomas, said the Congress did not mean the Voting Rights Act to "subject all or even most decisions of government in covered jurisdictions to federal supervision."

"Covered changes must bear a direct relation to voting itself," he said.

Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, in a dissent joined by Justices Byron R. White and Harry A. Blackmun, said that to deny decisionmaking authority to newly elected black officials "is just as unacceptable as gerrymandering boundary lines or switching elections from a district to an at-large basis."

Dayna L. Cunningham, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the ruling would give white elected officials "license" to think up new ways to deny decisionmaking authority to minority officeholders.

"If you look back to 1965, it is clear that Congress was trying to create an opportunity for protected minorities to have an actual role in government," she said. "Now there will be a brazenness about circumventing or undermining black political participation."

'Dial a Porn' Services

In other business last week, the High Court cleared the way for the enforcement of a federal law designed to shield children from so called "dial a porn" telephone services.

The Court on Jan. 27 declined to review a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that upheld a law known as the Helms Amendment, named after its sponsor, Senator Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina.

The law was passed in 1989 after the Supreme Court struck down a more restrictive version of a pornography statute. The Helms Amendment requires customers to sign up in advance in writing for telephone pornography services. Companies can bill customers by charge card rather than through telephone bills to avoid the advance-notice provision.

In Dial Information Services Corporation of New York v. Barr (No. 91-697), four phone pornography firms challenged the law as a restriction on First Amendment freedom of speech.

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