Federal court threatens to deal death blow to Voting Rights Act


A panel of judges on a federal appeals court said Monday that only the federal government — not citizens and groups — can sue under a key part of the Voting Rights Act, effectively striking down the legislation in seven states.

The ruling, which applies to Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota, concluded that only the U.S. Attorney General could bring a case under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

The vast majority of Voting Rights Act claims are brought by private citizens and civil rights groups, who foot the bill for time-consuming litigation to protect voting rights. The Ministry of Justice, which has limited staff and resources, typically handles only a small fraction of the cases handled at the national level.

This ruling is certain to be challenged – likely before the US Supreme Court – which has significantly limited the power of voting law over the past decade.

“If this ruling is allowed to stand, it will kill the Voting Rights Act,” said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at UCLA School of Law.

US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit to rule Monday that the Arkansas NAACP State Conference and the Arkansas Public Policy Commission could not challenge Arkansas’ redistricting maps because Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act does not provide a “private right of action.”

These groups sought to challenge the redistricting undertaken by Arkansas lawmakers in the state, where the Republican-controlled Legislature drew 11 majority-black districts in the state’s 100-seat House of Representatives. The state is 16% black.

The ruling, which affirms the lower court’s dismissal of the case, flies in the face of decades of precedent in which justices have assumed or specifically affirmed a private right to sue under the Voting Rights Act.

“Since the original opinion in Arkansas, I think there have been 15 decisions by other courts around the country on whether Section 2 includes a private right of action, and all but one decision, of course, have been made,” Michael Lee said. Redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Lee said he believes the ruling will be overturned on appeal, but it is currently the law of the land in seven states.

In addition to barring Arkansas groups from seeking additional voting rights for black voters there, Lee said the ruling could threaten a recent win for Native American voters in North Dakota on appeal. A federal judge ruled last week that North Dakota lawmakers had diluted the voting rights of two Native American tribes, in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Lawmakers are right To redraw state legislative maps before the end of the year.

revision (November 20, 2023, 6:01 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the legal implications of the Eighth Circuit’s decision. The panel’s ruling could threaten a separate ruling in favor of Native American voters in North Dakota; This ruling is not invalidated.

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