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A voter fills out his ballot in Jackson, Mississippi, on November 7, 2023.
A federal appeals court ruled Monday against a key tool used to enforce the Voting Rights Act — which would likely lead to another showdown before the Supreme Court over one of the nation’s landmark civil rights laws.
In a ruling from an Arkansas redistricting case, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that private entities cannot sue under a provision of the law, known as noun section 2. If upheld, the ruling would significantly weaken what remains of the law. Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 to combat racial discrimination in elections.
In a 2-1 decision, the justices said the “text and structure” of the Voting Rights Act show that Congress did not give private plaintiffs the authority to sue. The appeals panel upheld a 2022 ruling by a Trump-appointed federal judge in Arkansas that only the U.S. Department of Justice could bring Article 2 lawsuits.
This decision, however, goes against decades of legal practice.
The vast majority of cases brought under the Voting Rights Act – which prohibits election rules with the intent or effect of discriminating on the basis of race – are brought by private plaintiffs, the Department of Justice being faced with limited resources and other considerations that limit numbers. of these cases, he files, at most, a few each year.
“Eliminating the right of individuals to sue under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act flies in the face of established law, common sense, and every fundamental concept of fairness: when government discriminates against people, they should have the right to fight back in court,” Paul Smith, senior vice president of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, said in a statement.
The center had submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, arguing that private prosecutions are essential to enforcing the Voting Rights Act.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s Elections Section — which enforces federal election laws — simply doesn’t have enough lawyers “to be everywhere in the country at once,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research. He worked as an attorney in the DOJ voting section during the Clinton and Bush administrations.
“That’s why, for more than 50 years, private plaintiffs have also brought these lawsuits so that residents of one small county in Arkansas are just as well protected as residents of the entire state of California,” he added.
The case in question focuses on a challenge originally brought by the Arkansas Chapter of the NAACP and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel to the Arkansas Map.
The decision immediately affects the seven states covered by the 8th Circuit: Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. And it comes as the 2024 presidential campaign heats up.
Voting procedures across the country have been the subject of intense political battles since the 2020 presidential election. Former President Donald Trump has continually falsely claimed that voter fraud contributed to his loss.
Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin, a Republican, praised Monday’s ruling as helping to curb “baseless” challenges to states’ decisions on how to draw legislative maps and conduct elections.
“For too long, courts across the country have allowed political activists to bring baseless lawsuits seeking to take control of how states conduct elections and redistricting,” he said in a communicated. “This decision confirms that enforcement of the Voting Rights Act must be carried out by politically accountable officials and not by outside interest groups.”
Circuit Judge David Stras, appointed by Trump and writing for the majority, said the text of the Voting Rights Act does not specify a “private right of action” or the capacity of a private citizen to take legal action.
In his dissent, Chief Circuit Judge Lavenski Smith – appointed by George W. Bush – noted that at least 182 successful Section 2 cases have been successfully brought over the past 40 years, of which only 15 were brought solely by the U.S. Department of Justice.
“The rights so fundamental to self-government and citizenship should not depend solely on the discretion or availability of government protection agents,” Smith wrote.
An appeal of Monday’s ruling could go to the full 8th Circuit for review. But the case is expected to ultimately end up before the nation’s high court, in part because a panel from another appeals court, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, recently reached a different conclusion.
Just this year, in a high-profile redistricting case in Alabama, the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed the use of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to order the state to redraw the congressional map to guarantee more political power to black voters. The decision surprised many legal observers, given that the high court weakened the law in 2013 by defragmenting a separate provision of the law that determined which states had to obtain approval from the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court before they can change their voting procedures. and laws.
This story has been updated with additional information.