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Section 5 survives

With only one Justice voting to strike down Congress’s 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act’s controversial Section 5, the Supreme Court on Monday interpreted the law in a way that saves it.  The Court said that all local units of government must be given the option to bail out of the requirement that they get Washington approval for any changes in their election laws or methods.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., writing for an eight-member majority in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder (08-322), said that Section 5 has achieved “historic accomplishments,” but “now raises serious constitutional concerns.”

And, he said, while the Court would not shrink from its duty to apply the Constitution to block “legislative encroachments,” the Court also was obliged to decide a case by interpreting the scope of legislation if that route is available as an alternative to striking down the law altogether. That is the option it chose.

Justice Clarence Thomas, who dissented alone, said that 45 years after Congress initially passed Section 5 in 1965, “the violence, intimidation and subterfuge” that led to its enactment “no longer remains.” He said giving local governments a chance to bail out was insufficient, so he would nullify Section 5.

“Because the Court’s statutory decision does not provide [NAMUDNO] with full relief, I conclude that it is inappropriate to apply the constitutional avoidance doctrine,” Thomas wrote. He agreed only with the outcome of the case — the reversal of a three-judge U.S. District Court ruling that had upheld the law and had found that NAMUDNO was not eligible for an exemption from the law.

The decision was probably the most eagerly awaited ruling of the current Term.  It came as the Justices continued to press toward their summer recess, issuing the Section 5 decision and two others Monday.  It has seven rulings to go; it will sit again on Thursday and more opinions are expected then.

In a second decision, the Court by a 6-3 vote ruled that parents of a disabled child, who decide on their own to transfer the child to a private school, are entitled to tuition reimbursement from the local school district even if the child had never received any special education aid previously. If a public school fails to provide an adequate education for the child, the Court said in the opinion written by Justice John Paul Stevens, the parents are entitled to be repaid for the money they spend at a private school as an alternative.  (Forest Grove School District v. T.A., 08-305).

In a significant environmental case, the Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has the authority to issue permits for dumping dredge or fill dirt into a waterway, without satisfying all of the pollution limits that are enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency (Coeur Alaska v. Southeast Alaska Conservation, 07-984, and a companion case, 07-990).  The ruling allows discharge of some 4.5 million tons of leftover dirt from gold mining operations into a lake near Juneau, Alaska.