The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned a key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act.
In its 5-4 ruling, the conservative wing of the court said Section 4 of the act is unconstitutional because it relies on 40-year-old data that does not reflect racial progress and changes in U.S. society.
The court says this provision cannot be enforced until Congress comes up with a new way of determining which states and localities need close federal monitoring of elections.
This decision effectively frees nine states, plus parts of several others with a history of racial discrimination, from having to get federal approval before making changes to their voting laws.
The provision in question was overwhelmingly renewed by Congress in 2006.
According to Chief Justice John Roberts, "Congress did not use the record it compiled to shape a coverage formula grounded in current conditions. It instead re-enacted a formula based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relation to the present day."
In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, "[T]he evolution of voting discrimination into more subtle second-generation barriers is powerful evidence that a remedy as effective as pre-clearance remains vital to protect minority voting rights and prevent backsliding."
The justices did not strike down the part of the law that has been used to open up polling places to minority voters since it was first enacted in 1965.
Civil rights groups argued the Voting Rights Act has helped stop discriminatory voting laws and they feared the impact of the court's decision going forward.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said he was deeply disappointed with the Supreme Court's decision.
Holder said Congress had just revisited those methods as recently as 2006 and that current research clearly shows there are areas in the country where voting discrimination happens.
"These problems have not be consigned to history. They continue to exist. Their effects are real. They are of today, not yesterday, and they corrode the foundations of our democracy," Holder said. "This decision represents a serious setback for voting rights and has the potential to negatively affect millions of Americans across the country."
In a statement, President Barack Obama echoed Holder's response saying, in part, "While today's decision is a setback, it doesn't represent the end of our efforts to end voting discrimination. I am calling on Congress to pass legislation to ensure every American has equal access to the polls. My administration will continue to do everything in its power to ensure a fair and equal voting process."
Conservative groups said the justices took the right approach.
"You stop and you say, 'OK, we're not going to make any more minor adjustments based on this district or this district. It's time to tell Congress to go back to the drawing board and figure something else out," said Trevor Burrus of the Cato Institute.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to release more opinions on Wednesday, and is expected to release two important decisions on same-sex marriage, as the court concludes a term with huge implications on civil rights.