Constitutional Law and Civil Rights

Once Again: Voting Rights and Gay Marriage In The News

VOTING RIGHTS BILL INTRODUCED IN CONGRESS: A bill introduced in Congress last month would require four southern states to once again obtain federal preapproval before making any changes to their voting laws by replacing parts of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court last year. The bill modernizes the formula in the forty-nine-year-old law the justices said didn't reflect racial progress that had been made in the country since the law's enactment.

The new bill would require preclearance only from states where there have been at least five violations of the Voting Rights Act, with at least one of them committed at the state level. Of the 15 states previously subject at least in part to preclearance, only Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas meet that condition. Those states would be able to request a "bailout" from the preclearance requirement after 10 years. Counties and municipalities, meanwhile, would be subject to preclearance if found to have committed three violations of the Voting Rights Act in the last 15 years or a single violation if it occurred in an area with a "persistent and extremely low minority voter turnout."

"What we were facing was both a constitutional as well as a political challenge," said U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), who helped draft the bill. "I think we have threaded that needle."

The measure has bipartisan support, having been coauthored by U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont). And Leahy said he was confident about the bill's chances in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Its prospects in the Republican-controlled House, however, are less clear.

But former civil rights leader and current U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia), another of the bill's supporters, was surprised the measure was ready for introduction before the Jan. 20 holiday commemorating the birth of Martin Luther King Jr.

"It is amazing to me, almost unreal, that we were able to come together so quickly," he said. (ASSOCIATED PRESS, DALLAS MORNING NEWS)

GAY MARRIAGE FLIPS AS WEDGE ISSUE: A decade ago Karl Rove used widespread opposition to same-sex marriage to mobilize conservative voters in 13 states and help reelect President George W. Bush. But public opinion has shifted so dramatically on the issue that Democratic groups believe it will help them mobilize voters in this year's elections.

Ballot initiatives on gay marriage are already in the works in Oregon and may soon be in Indiana and Ohio too, and the issue is expected to play a role in a number of congressional and state races across the country.

Matt Canter, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said there isn't a single big-money Republican group even willing to say publicly that it will challenge Democratic candidates "who support equality."

"I can only assume that these groups recognize that they risk sounding hateful and out of touch on issues that matter in this election if they were to pursue such a strategy," he said.

The Republican National Committee's position, however, is that the issue won't be central to the midterm elections.

"I'm not sure of any races where this is an issue," RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski stated in an e-mail. (WASHINGTON POST)

— Compiled by KOREY CLARK

SOCIAL POLICY: A federal judge overturns a NORTH CAROLINA law that required doctors providing abortions to show women ultrasound images and describe them in detail before performing the procedure. U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles said requiring a health care provider to pass along an "ideological message in favor of carrying a pregnancy to term" was a violation of constitutionally-protected free speech. The state is considering an appeal (NEWSOBSERVER [GREENSBORO]). • The INDIANA House approves HB 1351, a bill that would require welfare recipients to undergo screening for illegal drug use. The bill, which would also restrict what food items could be purchased with food stamps, moves to the Senate (STATE NET, INDIANAPOLIS STAR).

— Compiled by RICH EHISEN

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