The court did not strike down the law Monday, as some experts had expected, but it opened the door for jurisdictions to free themselves from one of the act's key provisions.
In an 8-to-1 decision announced Monday, the high court embraced a more expansive reading of a key part of Section 5. The provision requires jurisdictions governed by the Voting Rights Act to obtain federal permission before making any changes to election procedures. The ruling broadens the kinds of jurisdictions that can use the so-called "bailout" provision in Section 5 to end federal oversight.
"We ... hold that all political subdivisions ... are eligible to file a bailout suit," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.
The case was being watched closely because many analysts believed a majority of justices might vote to strike down the law as an unconstitutional power grab by Congress.
Instead of confronting that constitutional issue in what would have been a highly controversial decision, the majority justices resolved the case by interpreting the underlying voting-rights statute.
The Voting Rights Act was passed 44 years ago to protect equal access to the ballot and weed out illegal efforts to subvert minority voting power. It applies to all or parts of 16 states, mostly in the South. The law has been reauthorized several times, most recently in 2006 for 25 years.
At issue in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder was whether Congress was justified in issuing a blanket extension of the law to the existing covered jurisdictions without undertaking a new, comprehensive review to concentrate federal enforcement action on the worst offenders.