WASHINGTON - Belying concerns it would gut the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court yesterday sidestepped the question of whether a key provision of the landmark 1965 civil rights legislation remains constitutional at a time when the nation's racial politics have changed forever.

Instead, ruling narrowly, the court simply decided that all political subdivisions covered by the provision had the right to prove they do not discriminate, and thus would not need to have federal authorities pre-approve local election-law changes.

That provision, called Section 5, is the heart of the act, and applies to Virginia, Alaska, Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and parts of seven other states.

Civil rights activists had braced themselves for the conservative majority on the court to find Section 5 unconstitutional. But the court refused to do that on an 8-1 vote with only Justice Clarence Thomas, the court's only African American member, going that far.

He said "punishment for long past sins is not a legitimate basis" for imposing the act's toughest restrictions on mostly Southern states.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who during oral arguments had been sharply critical in his questioning of government lawyers defending Congress' 2006 decision to extend the Voting Rights Act's advance-approval requirement for 25 years, said the court did not need to settle the larger issue.

The approach seemed to follow his stated goal of deciding cases narrowly and avoiding what probably would have been another sharply divided ruling on an important constitutional issue.

He made clear he had questions about the sweep of the extension of the act.

"Things have changed in the South," Roberts wrote. "Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels."

Civil rights groups applauded the decision.

"It's fair to say this case was brought to tear the heart out of the Voting Rights Act, and today that effort failed," said Debo Adegbile, lead attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R., Ga.), one of 33 lawmakers who opposed renewal of the law in 2006, said: "I'm disappointed that the justices laid out the case for why the law is unconstitutional and then stopped short of tossing it. I do feel optimistic, however, that the court's dim view . . . means the law will not survive for the full length of its 25-year renewal."

Although some briefs in the case had noted the election of President Obama in supporting the view that the law was no longer needed, the court did not mention the election of the first black president.

Instead, in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number 1 v. Holder, the court decided only the issue raised by the tiny utility district in Austin, Texas, that had served as a test case.

It reversed a lower court's decision that such jurisdictions did not have the ability to "bail out" - exempt themselves from the restrictive provisions - because they are not responsible for their voter registrations.

The court made it clear that all of the 12,000 political subdivisions covered by the act had the ability to convince a federal court or the attorney general that they should be free from the restrictions.

The utility district is in the heart of Canyon Creek, an affluent suburb of 3,500 that didn't break ground on its first house until the 1980s. About 80 percent of its residents are white, according to the 2000 census.

As recently as 2002, voters used a neighbor's garage to cast their ballot in their utility board elections. The board wanted to change the polling location to a school but first had to seek federal clearance.

The community got it, but Canyon Creek's board felt that needing approval from Washington was an unnecessary burden for a tiny neighborhood with no history of voter discrimination.

To read the court's opinion in the voting case, go to