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Voting Rights Act gets backing

Anti-racial discrimination law dealing with polling places survives high court challenge.

WASHINGTON — The Voting Rights Act, the government’s chief weapon against racial discrimination at polling places since the 1960s, survived a Supreme Court challenge Monday in a ruling that nevertheless warned of serious constitutional questions posed by part of the law.

Major civil rights groups and other defenders of the landmark law breathed a sigh of relief when the court ruled narrowly in favor of a small Texas governing authority while sidestepping the larger constitutional issue.

Also Monday, the court:

• Ruled that parents don’t have to send their special education students to public schools before asking to get reimbursed for private school tuition. The justices ruled 6-3 that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act does not require public school attendance before parents of special ed students can ask to be reimbursed for the child’s tuition at private schools. The family of a teenage Oregon boy has fought to get reimbursed for $65,000 in private tuition.

• Upheld a federal government permit to dump waste from an Alaskan gold mine into a nearby lake, even though all its fish would be killed. The justices on a 6-3 vote said a federal appeals court wrongly blocked the permit on environmental grounds. Environmentalists fear that the ruling could set a precedent for how mining waste is disposed in American lakes, streams and rivers.

In the Voting Rights Act case, after argument in late April, it appeared the court’s conservatives could have a majority to strike down part of the law as unnecessary in an era marked by the election of the first African-American president.

But with only one justice in dissent, the court avoided the major questions raised over the section of the voting law that requires all or parts of 16 states — mainly in the South and with a history of discrimination in voting — to get Justice Department approval before making changes in the way elections are conducted.

The court said that the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 in Austin, Texas, could apply to opt out of the advance approval requirement, reversing a lower federal court that ruled it could not. The district appears to meet the requirements to bail out, although the high court did not pass judgment Monday on that point.

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