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Court to rule on voting rights law, 3 other cases

The Supreme Court on Friday took on a weighty constitutional dispute over Congress’s 25-year extension of the federal voting rights law’s provision requiring some states and local governments to get clearance in Washington before making any changes in election laws or methods. The Court accepted for review an appeal in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Mukasey (08-322).

The Court also agreed to hear three other cases, testing the rights of Americans to sue the present government of Iraq over abuses by the former regime of Saddam Hussein; the duty of local governments to carry out the results of employment tests even if they reduce job opportunities for minority workers; and the duty of states to fully fund English language instruction for students who lack those skills, the first case the Court has ever heard on the “No Child Left Behind Act,” a leading domestic policy initiative of the Bush Administration passed in 2001 and signed into law in early 2002.

To access filings in these granted cases, click here.  The new cases are expected to be heard by the Court in the session starting April 20. In Friday’s orders, the Court speeded up the briefing schedule.

The Court’s review of the voting rights case will pose a major test of Congress’ authority to require continuing close federal oversight of state and local election procedures, in the face of claims that times have changed so greatly since the law at issue was first adopted in 1965 that it is no longer justified under the Constitution.  Some conservative advocacy groups are passionately opposed to the Voting Rights Act extension, claiming it is a profound intrusion on state sovereignty.

The case actually involves two issues, and depending upon how the Court rules on one of them, it may not reach the ultimate question of constitutionality.  The local Texas government unit argues that it should be allowed to “bail out” from coverage by so-called Section 5, under a special exemption procedure the law includes.  If the Court were to rule that the utility district is entitled to such an exemption, the constitutional question might have to await some future case.

A three-judge District Court upheld the extension of Section 5’s pre-clearance procedure, and rejected the bail-out claim, and the utility district then exercised its right to appeal directly to the Supreme Court.  The Justices accepted jurisdiction on Friday. The Court had the option of acting without further briefing or argument, as the Justice Department had urged in calling on the Justices to uphold the lower court ruling summarily, but the Justices chose instead to follow the usual review procedure.  Briefing is to be completed by late March, so the case is expected to be heard and decided during the current Court Term.

In pressing its plea for review of the case, the Texas district summoned up the results of the presidential election last November.  “The America that has elected Barack Obama as its first African-American president is far different than when Section 5 was first enacted in 1965,” it argued.  The federal government and those supporting the 25-year extension, it added, “barely acknowledge the deep-rooted societal change, preferring to assume that conditions remain similarly dire despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”

In constitutional terms, a key question in the case is what test the Court will apply in deciding whether the law goes beyond Congress’s legislative authority.  The Texas district urges the Court to apply the test the Justices have fashioned for judging Congress’s authority to pass laws to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment.  The new case is largely a test under the Fifteenth Amendment, which extended voting rights to minority citizens.  The District Court said the law is valid, whatever test is applied to its constitutionality.

The Court’s agreement to examine the Iraqi government’s claim of immunity to liability in U,.S. courts for past torture and abuse of Americans will focus on the specific issue of whether President Bush has succeeded in heading off any such lawsuits by using powers Congress gave him in laws passed in 2007 and 2008.  The present government of Iraq said that it now faces potential damage claims of $1 billion if the lawsuits are allowed to proceed.

In several rulings, the D.C. Circuit Court has ruled that those lawsuits may go forward.  The Supreme Court, before acting on two appeals by Iraq, asked the U.S. Solicitor General for the federal government’s views. S.G. Gregory G. Garre urged the Justices to hear and decide the dispute.  The cases, consolidated for review, are Iraq v. Beaty (07-1090) and Iraq v. Simon (08-539).

The Court also consolidated for review the new employment law cases — both carrying the title Ricci, et al., v. DeStefano, et al. (07-1428 and 08-328).   The petitions for review were filed by 18 individuals — 17 whites and one Hispanic — who took civil service exams for the positions of lieutenant and captain in the Fire Department in New Haven, Conn., in late 2003.

The results of those tests showed white candidates scoring at much higher rates than minority candidates.  As a result, Fire Department officials refused to implement the results in actual promotions, fearing that if they did they would violate federal civil rights law — Section VII. They chose to leave the positions vacant, thus leaving out some who would have been eligible for open positions.  The appeal contends that the official refusal to carry out the results was a forbidden racially motive action.

The key issue in the new education law cases (Horne v. Flores, et al., 08-289, and Arizona House Speaker, et al., v. Flores, 08-294) is whether a state that satisfies the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act on English language instruction cannot be found to have violated the funding requirements for such instruction imposed by an earlier law, the Equal Education Opportunity Act of 1974.

Arizona officials in their appeal contended that they have taken major steps to improve English skills among Hispanic students in the state, and thus should not obliged to adopt earmarked new funding to pay for additional instructional programs.  The dispute over funding for such language training has continued in dispute in Arizona since 1992, when students and parents in Nogales sued, claiming violations of the 1974 law’s requirement that language barriers be removed so that children are better able to achieve an education.

The Court granted review of the two appeals despite urging by the state of Arizona, which faces the duty to add to spending for language instruction, not to hear the cases.  The cases were consolidated for review.