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Civil rights hang in the balance in Supreme Court decisions

With the Supreme Court set to hand down decisions on both affirmative action and voting rights this week, civil rights advocates are anxious over the future of
Credit: Susan Walsh/AP Photo
Credit: Susan Walsh/AP Photo

With the Supreme Court set to hand down decisions on both affirmative action and voting rights this week, civil rights advocates are anxious over the future of efforts to create greater equality in society.

The two cases, Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin and Shelby County v. Holder, could fundamentally change the level of access non-white residents of the US have to participation in the democratic process and higher education.

“This year the Supreme Court justices will determine if…the power to effect change, will be endangered,” NAACP president Ben Jealous wrote of the Shelby County case in an article for theGrio.

If the Supreme Court rules that all racially-conscious admissions policies are not constitutional,  years of work by public universities to ensure diversity in their student bodies and to address the gap between educational resources between white and non-white communities could face setbacks.

"Because the state of opportunity is not great right now, to take away the tool of race-conscious admissions would be counterproductive,” Damon Hewitt, director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Education Practice Group told msnbc.

Based on the questions the Supreme Court justices asked at oral arguments in February, experts believe the court is likely to order some change to the law, although there is no way to know how broad the ruling will be. The court could throw out the 2003 decision that allows for some consideration of race in admissions decisions as long as the goal is to reach a “critical mass” of diversity, although a more narrow ruling that deals specifically with UT-Austin’s policy of automatically admitting the top 10% of each state high school’s graduating class is also possible.

The NAACP’s Hewitt points out that existing examples in California suggest that removing racially-conscious admissions would mean fewer minority students get access to higher education. In California, since the 1996 passage of a ballot initiative that banned considering race in college admissions, campuses have become more segregated even though diversity throughout the system has increased thanks to demographic changes.

The Supreme Court will also decide whether to strike down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which has required states with histories of racial discrimination to get Justice Department approval before changing their voting laws.

While conservative activists believe the requirement constitutes unacceptable federal intrusion into state business, Section 5 has stopped the GOP from enacting changes that the DOJ determined would decrease minority enfranchisement, as msnbc’s Zachary Roth has reported. If the conservative-led Supreme Court were to strike down the provision, millions of voters could be disenfranchised. There have been more serious attacks against voting rights by conservative Republicans in the past few years than in the past decades, and the Supreme Court’s decision could lead to broad voting law changes around the country.

Since 2010, more than a dozen states have approved measures that would make it more difficult to vote, whether by requiring a photo ID or by eliminating early voting or same-day voter registration. Studies by groups like the Brennan Center for Justice have shown that such changes disproportionately affect poor, minority, and first time voters, groups that tend to vote Democratic in high numbers. When coupled with redistricting efforts that have created much more homogenized districts, voting rights as a whole have faced significant threats.

Back in January, host Melissa Harris-Perry addressed an open letter to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts about affirmative action. See it below.