WASHINGTON - The Obama administration announced Thursday that it will legally contest a series of laws around the country as part of an aggressive campaign to fight a recent Supreme Court ruling that it says could reduce minority voting.
The Justice Department filed its first challenge Thursday, asking a judge to require Texas to seek permission from the federal government before making voting changes because of the state's history of discrimination. Several states in the South and Southwest, including Arizona, could face similar lawsuits.
"This is the department's first action to protect voting rights following the (Supreme Court) … decision, but it will not be our last," Attorney General Eric Holder told a National Urban League conference in Philadelphia on Thursday. "My colleagues and I are determined to use every tool at our disposal to stand against discrimination wherever it is found."
Civil rights groups and African-American lawmakers welcomed the decision, as did the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
They had urged President Obama to wade into the issue after a divided Supreme Court struck down a centerpiece of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required some states to receive federal approval for electoral revisions. Some supporters said they were surprised at how quickly the administration intervened.
"I think it's a great move," said Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, chairwoman of the 42-member Congressional Black Caucus. "I think the Civil Rights Division and the Justice Department in general should make sure that the citizens of this country have fair and equal treatment."
But Texas officials, from Austin to Washington, blasted the decision, accusing the Obama administration of "bullying" the state for political reasons.
"Once again, the Obama administration is demonstrating utter contempt for our country's system of checks and balances, not to mention the U.S. Constitution," Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry said in a statement. "This end run around the Supreme Court undermines the will of the people of Texas and casts unfair aspersions on our state's common-sense efforts to preserve the integrity of our elections process."
One voter rights group, True the Vote, immediately announced plans to fight Holder in court.
"We will meet Attorney General Holder in court and we will do whatever we need to do to advance the cause of voters' rights for all Americans," said the group's president, Catherine Engelbrecht.
Fifty-three percent of Americans believe discrimination in voting remains a problem and should be addressed by Congress, while 37 percent do not, according to a McClatchy-Marist poll released Thursday. But only 28 percent say it should be an immediate priority for Obama and Congress.
Nine states are covered by the pre-clearance requirements: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Selected jurisdictions in an additional seven states also are covered, including parts of California, Florida, North Carolina, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York and South Dakota.
Holder said he has shifted resources to help enforce voting laws not affected by the Supreme Court's decision. But he said he still wants Congress to restore, and even strengthen, voting protections.
"Let me be very clear: These remaining tools are no substitute for legislation that must fill the void left by the Supreme Court's decision," he said. "This issue transcends partisanship, and we must work together. We cannot allow the slow unraveling of the progress that so many, throughout history, have sacrificed so much to achieve."