Voting Rights Act Faces Challenge: WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal appeals court’s recent 2-1 decision challenged the ability of private individuals and groups, such as the NAACP, to sue under a crucial section of the federal Voting Rights Act. This ruling, contrary to decades of precedent, may weaken protections established by the landmark 1965 law.
The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in St. Louis, determined that only the U.S. attorney general has the authority to enforce Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. This section mandates the inclusion of districts in political maps where preferred candidates of minority populations can secure election victories.
The majority argued that while other federal laws, like the 1964 Civil Rights Act, explicitly outline when private groups can sue, the Voting Rights Act lacks similar clarity. U.S. Circuit Judge David R. Stras, nominated by former President Donald Trump, and Judge Raymond W. Gruender, appointed by former President George W. Bush, emphasized that it wasn’t the court’s role to fill in gaps unless ‘text and structure’ demanded it.
This decision upheld the lower judge’s dismissal of a case brought by the Arkansas State Conference NAACP and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, urging U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland to join within five days.
Chief Judge Lavenski R. Smith dissented, highlighting that federal courts nationwide, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have entertained numerous cases brought by private plaintiffs under Section 2. Smith argued for adherence to existing precedent permitting a judicial remedy unless the Supreme Court or Congress directs otherwise.
Sophia Lin Lakin, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, condemned the ruling as a “travesty for democracy,” expressing concern for the jeopardy it places the Voting Rights Act in. Lakin, representing the two Arkansas groups, criticized the court for not overturning the lower court’s decision, which she deemed radical.
The Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP’s political action chair, Barry Jefferson, called the ruling “a devastating blow to the civil rights of every American and the integrity of our nation’s electoral system.” The groups had contested the new Arkansas state House districts, claiming they diluted the influence of Black voters. The redistricting plan created 11 majority-Black districts, which the groups argued was insufficient, advocating for 16 to better reflect the state’s demographics.
U.S. District Judge Lee Rudofsky acknowledged a strong case against some challenged districts violating the federal Voting Rights Act. However, he felt constrained, concluding that the challenge could only be brought by the U.S. attorney general.
The Justice Department filed a “statement of interest,” asserting that private parties can file lawsuits to enforce the Voting Rights Act but refrained from commenting on the ruling.
This ruling’s immediate impact is confined to federal courts under the 8th Circuit, covering Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota. However, several pending lawsuits nationwide challenge various political maps drawn by legislators.
The likelihood of this case reaching the U.S. Supreme Court is high. The issue was previously raised in a 2021 opinion by Justice Neil Gorsuch, who, in a 5-4 decision in June, dissented in another Voting Rights Act case, supporting Black voters in Alabama objecting to the state’s congressional districts.
Election law experts note that challenges under Section 2 are primarily brought by private plaintiffs due to limited resources at the Justice Department. The apparent contradiction between this ruling and a recent Supreme Court decision on a similar Alabama case raises concerns among voting rights experts.
The Congressional Black Caucus criticized the appellate court’s decision, urging an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. They highlighted the success of private individuals and civil rights groups in securing better representation for Black voters through recent challenges in Alabama, Louisiana, and Florida.
The road ahead remains uncertain, with potential implications for the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, especially in cases involving private litigants seeking to address violations of Section 2.