Federal appeals court deals blow to Voting Rights Act, ruling that private plaintiffs can’t sue

by Chloe Baker
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Voting Rights Act Ruling

In a recent ruling, a federal appeals court has delivered a significant setback to the Voting Rights Act by deciding that private individuals and groups, including the NAACP, lack the standing to sue under a crucial section of the legislation. This 2-1 decision by a panel of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in St. Louis, held that only the U.S. attorney general possesses the authority to enforce Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. This particular section mandates the inclusion of electoral districts where minority populations can elect their preferred candidates.

The majority opinion, authored by U.S. Circuit Judge David R. Stras and joined by Judge Raymond W. Gruender, emphasized that while federal laws such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act provide clear guidance on when private groups can initiate lawsuits, similar clarity is absent in the voting law. The court asserted that it should refrain from filling in such gaps unless “text and structure” explicitly necessitate it.

This ruling upheld the lower court’s decision to dismiss a case brought by the Arkansas State Conference NAACP and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel. These organizations had given U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland five days to join their lawsuit but were ultimately denied the opportunity to pursue their claims in court.

In a dissenting opinion, Chief Judge Lavenski R. Smith argued that federal courts across the country and the U.S. Supreme Court have previously considered cases brought by private plaintiffs under Section 2. Smith contended that the court should adhere to existing precedent that allows for a judicial remedy unless the Supreme Court or Congress dictates otherwise.

Sophia Lin Lakin, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, decried the ruling as a “travesty for democracy.” She had represented the Arkansas groups in their appeal and expressed concern that this decision jeopardizes vital protections enshrined in the Voting Rights Act.

The implications of this ruling extend beyond the confines of the 8th Circuit, encompassing states like Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Moreover, it raises questions about the potential future involvement of the U.S. Supreme Court, particularly in light of Justice Neil Gorsuch’s previous remarks on the matter.

While this ruling has left many voting rights advocates disheartened, it underscores the ongoing debate about the scope and enforcement of voting rights legislation in the United States, and the potential consequences for ensuring fair representation and combating racial gerrymandering.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Voting Rights Act Ruling

What was the recent ruling by the federal appeals court regarding the Voting Rights Act?

The recent ruling by a federal appeals court held that private individuals and groups, such as the NAACP, do not have the ability to sue under a key section of the federal Voting Rights Act. This decision has raised concerns among voting rights advocates.

What does the Voting Rights Act’s Section 2 entail?

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act requires political maps to include districts where minority populations’ preferred candidates can win elections. It is a crucial component of the legislation aimed at preventing racial discrimination in voting.

Who can enforce Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act according to the court’s decision?

According to the court’s decision, only the U.S. attorney general has the authority to enforce Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Private individuals and groups are not granted this legal standing.

What was the case brought by the Arkansas State Conference NAACP and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel?

These organizations challenged new Arkansas state House districts, alleging that they diluted the influence of Black voters. They argued that the state could have created more majority-Black districts to better reflect the state’s demographics.

What impact does this ruling have on voting rights protection?

The ruling has raised concerns about the erosion of voting rights protections under the Voting Rights Act. It limits the ability of private plaintiffs to challenge electoral districts that may disenfranchise minority voters.

Is this ruling limited to a specific geographical area?

Yes, this ruling applies only to federal courts covered by the 8th Circuit, which includes states like Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

Could this case potentially reach the U.S. Supreme Court?

It is likely that this case may eventually be brought before the U.S. Supreme Court for further consideration, especially given the significance of the issues at hand and the prior opinions of some justices on related matters.

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