A federal appeals court issued a ruling Monday declaring that only the U.S. government, not private citizens and civil rights groups, can sue under the Voting Rights Act, a decision that would deal a major blow to the anti-discriminatory protections included in the landmark law.
The ruling, issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, said only the U.S. attorney general has the power to introduce legal challenges under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color or language of minority groups.
The ruling reaffirmed a 2022 decision by U.S. District Judge Lee Rudofsky, who was appointed to the bench by former President Trump. Rudofsky’s ruling last year dismissed a lawsuit brought by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel and Arkansas State Conference NAACP that challenged the state’s new House districts and sought a preliminary injunction to block them.
The appeals court ruling will very likely make it to the Supreme Court, which could set the stage for a major debate over voting rights.
In a 2-1 decision, the 8th Circuit ruled the text of the Voting Rights Act does not explicitly call for a “private right of action,” and that it remains unclear if Section 2 of the act creates an individual right to bring forth such legal challenges.
“But assuming their existence, and even discussing them, is different from actually deciding that a private right of action exists,” Judge David Stras wrote for the majority.
The plaintiffs in the suit argued Arkansas’s redistricting plan, approved by Arkansas’s GOP-controlled Board of Apportionment, created too few majority Black districts. Under the redistricting plans, the number of majority-Black Districts would decrease by one to 11, and a new majority-Hispanic district would be created.
Sophia Lin Lakin, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, railed against the decision, calling it a “travesty for democracy.”
“For generations, private individuals have brought cases under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to protect their right to vote,” Lin Lakin, who argued the appeal, said in a statement, adding later, “By failing to reverse the district court’s radical decision, the Eighth Circuit has put the Voting Rights Act in jeopardy, tossing aside critical protections that voters fought and died for.”
In his dissenting opinion, Chief Judge Lavenski Smith argued he would follow existing precedents that allow citizens to seek judicial action until the court rules or Congress amends the statute.
“While that private right has been called into question by two Supreme Court justices the Supreme Court has yet to overrule itself on that precise issue,” Smith wrote, later adding, “Until the Supreme Court instructs otherwise, I would hold that § 2 contains an implied private right of action.”