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Judge upholds key part of voting rights law

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A federal judge on Wednesday upheld a key provision of the landmark U.S. voting rights law aimed at protecting minorities in states and local governments with a history of racial discrimination.

U.S. District Judge John Bates concluded that Congress acted appropriately when it reauthorized the provision in 2006. Congress initially adopted the voting rights act, a historic piece of U.S. civil rights legislation, in 1965.

The judge ruled extensive evidence of recent voting discrimination in the legislative record justified the law's reauthorization into the 21st century and that the protections still were needed to safeguard the rights of minority voters.

At issue was the law's provision requiring states or local governments with histories of racial discrimination to get federal approval before making changes in election procedures, a timely ruling because many states are in that process now.

In the 151-page opinion, Bates rejected a challenge by Shelby County in Alabama, a largely white suburb of Birmingham covered by the law. It sought to have the provision declared unconstitutional for exceeding Congress's power.

"Judge Bates' ruling preserves the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act, which has been and will continue to be our country's most important means for preserving the right to vote and preventing discrimination in the electoral process," said John Nonna, a board member of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which had intervened in the case.

The provision could play a critical role in the coming years as states, counties, cities and school districts redraw their voting districts based on the 2010 Census. The population has shifted from the northeastern part of the country to the south and west.

The Supreme Court in 2009 declined to rule on the law's constitutionality, saying it was an important issue that required further study.

Critics have challenged the law as an impermissible federal encroachment on state sovereignty and said the protections no longer were needed after more than 40 years of progress in fighting discrimination.

Other challenges are pending.

Arizona last month sued and said the law exceeded congressional authority and should be held unconstitutional.

The Bush and the Obama administrations have defended the law as constitutional.

(Reporting by James Vicini, Editing by Bill Trott)

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