In a decision with implications for school districts in many parts of the country, a federal court has upheld the extension by Congress of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
A special three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court in Washington unanimously upheld the 25-year extension of the voting-rights law’s Section 5, which requires federal approval for any changes in election procedures in specified states and counties with a history of discrimination in voting on the basis of race or language-minority status.
The provision requires federal approval, or “preclearance,” typically by the U.S. Department of Justice, for such things as redistricting for school board elections or switching from a board elected from single-member districts to one elected at large.
In rejecting a broad challenge to the 25-year extension by a local utility district in Texas, the three-judge district court in Washington held that Congress had rationally concluded that extending Section 5 “was necessary to protect minorities from continued racial discrimination in voting.”
In its May 30 decision in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Mukasey, the court cited a number of objections lodged by the Justice Department in recent years to voting changes proposed by school districts as evidence that there was still a problem with discrimination in voting.
Of course, this decision does not alter the status quo. For now, many school districts face about 23 more years of preclearance requirements under the Voting Rights Act. But the ruling is likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the conservative majority may take a different view of whether Congress was acting within its constitutional powers when it extended the law.
Education Week reported on the 2006 renewal of the Voting Rights Act here.
The Justice Department has a helpful section on its Web site about Section 5 of the VRA.
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.