On Monday, a federal appeals court delivered a ruling that could significantly weaken the Voting Rights Act, contending that only the federal government can file lawsuits under a crucial section of this landmark legislation, excluding private citizens and civil rights organizations from this prerogative.
The decision, originating from the 8th Circuit, will likely face an appeal and may ultimately reach the Supreme Court. If upheld, it would represent a substantial retreat in implementing the law, which historically bolstered minority influence and representation in American politics.
The appellate court asserted that there is no recognized “private right of action” for Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, a provision prohibiting discriminatory voting practices based on race. While the formal protections outlined in Section 2 remain intact on paper, the practical impact of the ruling would significantly curtail the scope of these safeguards. Historically, private entities, including civil rights groups, individual voters, and political parties, have utilized Section 2 to challenge various issues such as redistricting and voter ID requirements.
The majority opinion, written by Judge David Stras (a Donald Trump appointee) and supported by Judge Raymond Gruender (a George W. Bush appointee), contends that the enforcement authority exclusively resides with the Attorney General of the United States. Chief Judge Lavenski Smith, another appointee of George W. Bush, dissented from this view.
This decision originated from a case in Arkansas involving racial gerrymandering, where the state’s NAACP chapter and others claimed that legislative districts violated the Voting Rights Act by diluting the voting power of Black voters. The lower court, also a Trump appointee, ruled in 2022 that there was no private right of action, which the circuit court affirmed on Monday.
The 8th Circuit, encompassing states like Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri, is at odds with other circuits that have acknowledged a private right of action. This circuit split makes it likely that the Supreme Court will be called upon to resolve the issue.
Two Supreme Court justices, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas, have previously indicated an openness to the argument that non-governmental groups lack the authority to demand enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. If the Supreme Court bars private challenges, it would reverse decades of legal practice, as private groups have frequently brought successful Section 2 challenges, far more often than the federal government.
Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin, a Republican, applauded the ruling, asserting that politically accountable officials, not outside interest groups, should enforce the Voting Rights Act. Given the recent circuit split, legal experts anticipate the case’s progression to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court could hear an appeal directly or allow the 8th Circuit to weigh in first. As of Monday afternoon, the challengers had not yet determined their next course of action. However, the prevailing circuit split suggests that the Supreme Court will likely be interested in the case.