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By Terry Baynes

(Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Friday upheld a key provision of the landmark U.S. voting rights law aimed at protecting minorities in states and local areas with a history of racial discrimination.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in a 2-1 decision said Congress did not exceed its power by renewing a requirement that nine states, mostly in the South, and dozens of local governments with a history of racial discrimination get federal permission to change their election procedures.

That was part of the Voting Rights Act, a major piece of civil rights legislation enacted in 1965, that Congress renewed in 2006.

Two members of the three-judge panel found that substantial evidence of recent voting discrimination in the legislative record justified the law's extension into the 21st Century.

"Congress drew reasonable conclusions from the extensive evidence it gathered and acted pursuant to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which entrust Congress with ensuring that the right to vote - surely among the most important guarantees of political liberty in the Constitution - is not abridged on account of race," Judge David Tatel wrote for the majority.

Under Section 5, the governments with a history of racial discrimination must get permission from the Justice Department or a three-judge federal court in the District of Columbia before changing their election procedures.

Shelby County, Alabama, sued in 2010, challenging the law as an impermissible federal encroachment on state sovereignty that was no longer needed after more than 40 years of progress in fighting discrimination.

But the D.C. Circuit disagreed, upholding a district judge's ruling against the county.

Congress documented hundreds of instances where the U.S. attorney general objected to proposed voting changes because of their discriminatory effect - a number that remained steady since 1982, the majority found. The court also pointed to a study finding that voter discrimination remained concentrated in the southern areas covered by the law.

Judge Stephen Williams, in a separate dissent, argued that the current extent of voter discrimination does not justify the heavy burdens on states and counties that have to obtain federal clearance for every minor voting change.

Bert Rein, a lawyer for Shelby County, was not immediately available for comment.

The Justice Department in a statement welcomed the court's decision, saying the provision "continues to serve as a critical tool in both blocking and deterring discriminatory voting practices."

Several states have challenged Section 5 over the years on the grounds that it interferes with their rights to govern elections. The Supreme Court in 2009 declined to rule on the law's constitutionality, saying it was an important issue that required further study.

In a separate case, the D.C. Circuit on Friday dismissed a similar challenge brought by Kinston, North Carolina. The court found that the city no longer had a right to challenge Section 5 because the Justice Department had decided to approve a change to the city's election law after the suit was filed.

The cases before the D.C. Circuit are Shelby County, Alabama, v. Holder, No. 11-5256; LaRoque v. Holder, No. 11-5349.

(Reporting By Terry Baynes; Editing by Vicki Allen)

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