WASHINGTON — A divided federal appeals court ruled Monday that advocacy groups can’t file lawsuits under a section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that they have long used to combat discrimination in election laws and legislative maps.
In a 2-1 ruling, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit upheld a district court opinion that threw out a legal challenge to a redistricting map for Arkansas’ state house. The Arkansas State Conference NAACP and Arkansas Public Policy Panel filed the lawsuit that argued the lines diluted Black voting strength.
“Did Congress give private plaintiffs the ability to sue under § 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 wrote for the majority.
The appellate court looked at the statute and upheld a district court ruling that found Congress only gave the U.S. attorney general the ability to bring such a case.
The Supreme Court likely will be asked to overturn the decision because it would dramatically alter the way Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act has been enforced, election law experts said.
“It’s hard to overstate how important and detrimental this decision would be if allowed to stand: the vast majority of claims to enforce section 2 of the Voting Rights Act are brought by private plaintiffs, not the Department of Justice with limited resources,” Rick Hasen, a law and political science professor at UCLA, wrote on his blog.
Sophia Lin Lakin, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, described the ruling in a statement as a “a travesty for democracy” and said private individuals have brought cases under Section 2 for generations.
“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,” Lakin said.
The decision affects the states covered by the 8th Circuit, which is Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.
The 8th Circuit’s opinion said a “deeper look” reveals that an assumption that private groups can file these lawsuits “rests on flimsy footing.”
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