Pelosi, Dem leaders urge Supreme Court to uphold Voting Rights Act

Inside the courtroom, however, there was evidence that the court is ready to ignore Pelosi's pleas. 

During questioning Wednesday, the five conservative justices hinted strongly at striking down Section 5 of the law, which bars nine states — most in the South — from changing their voting procedures without prior federal approval.

"Is it the government's submission that the citizens in the South are more racist than the citizens in the North?" Chief Justice John Roberts asked.

Justice Antonin Scalia, another conservative, piled on, arguing that Congress is an unreliable judge of whether Section 5 remains a necessary protection almost 50 years after the law was enacted. He said lawmakers' continued support for the provision was a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.”

Democrats have a different view, pointing to the many problems that cropped up at the polls last year — including hours-long lines and a host of state-imposed early voting restrictions — as evidence that the specter of voter discrimination is still very much alive.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, listed the Voting Rights Act among "the most critical and successful pieces of legislation" in the nation's history, and called the arguments against it misguided.

"It is instrumental in protecting every American’s right to vote, which is the basis for our democracy," Hoyer said in a statement. "This challenge to Section 5 of the Act fails to recognize the continued necessity of pre-clearance, especially after the trouble so many Americans had trying to cast their ballots last November." 

The Supreme Court hearing came on the same day that President Obama and congressional leaders unveiled a statue of Rosa Parks, the civil rights icon, in the venerable Statuary Hall of the Capitol.

The court is expected to rule on the case in June.