Civil rights organizations experienced a setback on Tuesday when the full 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined their request to revisit a significant ruling.
This ruling restricts the ability of private parties to file lawsuits under a crucial section of the Voting Rights Act aimed at combating racial discrimination in voting.
Controversial ruling with broad implications
The decision, initially made by a panel of three judges in November, marks a pivotal shift in enforcing the landmark legislation that has protected voters’ rights for decades.
The original ruling, contested by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel and the Arkansas State Conference NAACP, posits that only the government has the authority to enforce Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act through legal action.
This interpretation challenges long-standing practice, as most Voting Rights Act lawsuits have historically been initiated by private entities rather than the U.S. Department of Justice.
Arkansas redistricting case sparks ‘radical’ voting rights ruling
The case at the center of this ruling involved a challenge to a redistricting plan in Arkansas, accused of diluting the voting power of Black residents in the state.
Sophia Lin Lakin, an ACLU attorney involved in the appeal, labeled the November decision “radical.”
The ruling’s jurisdiction spans seven states, significantly impacting the legal landscape for voting rights within the 8th Circuit’s reach, including Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
Plaintiffs consider Supreme Court challenge amid voting rights uncertainty
Lakin emphasized the ruling’s disregard for “generations of precedent protecting voters and, in turn, our democracy.”
The plaintiffs have signaled their intention to explore further legal avenues, potentially escalating the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.
This possibility introduces an uncertain future for private voting rights litigation, especially given the Supreme Court’s current conservative majority.
Ruling limits Section 2 lawsuits to U.S. attorney general, challenges judicial norms
The controversy stems from a 2022 decision by U.S. District Judge Lee Rudofsky, who ruled that Section 2 lawsuits could only be initiated by the U.S. attorney general.
This stance was upheld by the 8th Circuit’s November opinion, written by Judge David Stras, another appointee of former President Donald Trump.
Stras argued that the Voting Rights Act does not explicitly allow for private lawsuits, a stance at odds with decades of judicial practice.
Court dissent signals potential Supreme Court challenge for voting rights
The refusal to rehear the case en banc (by the full court) was met with dissent from three judges, including Judge Steven Colloton, who criticized the November ruling as “flawed.”
This internal division within the court underscores the contentious nature of the decision and its departure from established legal norms.
As the plaintiffs consider taking their fight to the Supreme Court, the future of voting rights enforcement—and the role of private citizens in protecting those rights—hangs in the balance, presenting a critical juncture for the interpretation and application of the Voting Rights Act in the United States.