(WASHINGTON) — A federal appellate panel narrowly ruled on Monday that a key provision in the Voting Rights Act (VRA) does not allow people outside the federal government to sue over alleged electoral discrimination based on race.
The 2-1 opinion, if it stands, would sharply limit the ability for private citizens to challenge state voting laws under the VRA’s Section 2, which states that any measure that “results in a denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen of the U.S. to vote an account of race or color” is illegal.
“Did Congress give private plaintiffs the ability to sue under [Section] 2 of the Voting Rights Act? Text and structure reveal that the answer is no, so we affirm the district court’s decision to dismiss,” Judge David Stras, of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, wrote in the ruling, which upholds a previous decision in a 2022 redistricting case in Arkansas.
“The who-gets-to-sue question is the centerpiece of today’s case,” Stras, who was named to the bench by former President Donald Trump, wrote. “The Voting Rights Act lists only one plaintiff who can enforce [Section] 2: the Attorney General … We must decide whether naming one excludes others.”
He added: “When those details are missing, it is not our place to fill in the gaps, except when ‘text and structure’ require it.”
The ruling is likely be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court during a presidential election year.
Chief Judge Lavensky Smith wrote in a dissent that “rights so foundational to self-government and citizenship should not depend solely on the discretion or availability of the government’s agents for protection. Resolution of whether [Section] 2 affords private plaintiffs the ability to challenge state action is best left to the Supreme Court in the first instance.”
For decades, individual voters and civil rights groups have brought successful challenges under Section 2, including last term at the high court, in a case about whether Alabama’s congressional map was drawn to dilute the voting power of Black people. The justices sided with the plaintiffs.
Smith, in his dissent, noted that precedent and that the nation’s highest court has never explicitly cast doubt on the standing of non-government plaintiffs.
Still, heated debate took place when the Supreme Court heard the Alabama case, with several of the conservative-leaning judges showing openness to imposing new limits on the VRA.
The court’s conservative majority has already sharply curtailed the act in a series of recent decisions to bring its enforcement in line with their interpretation of the law.
But, surprising some court observers, the court has also continued to uphold and enforce some parts of the VRA, as with the Alabama decision.
In a statement after the Monday ruling, Sophia Lin Lakin, who directs the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, called 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. No court had denied them the ability to bring their claims in federal court — with the sole exception of the district court, and now the Eighth Circuit,” Lakin said.
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