In a contentious 2-1 decision, a panel of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis ruled that private individuals and groups, such as the NAACP, lack the authority to sue under a crucial section of the federal Voting Rights Act.
This decision contradicts decades of precedent and could further diminish protections under the landmark 1965 law. The court found that only the U.S. attorney general has the authority to enforce Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which mandates the inclusion of districts in political maps where minority populations’ preferred candidates can secure election victories.
The majority opinion argued that while other federal laws, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act, delineate circumstances under which private groups can sue, similar language is absent in the voting law. U.S. Circuit Judge David R. Stras, writing for the majority, stated, “When those details are missing, it is not our place to fill in the gaps, except when ‘text and structure’ require it.”
Stras, an apointee of former President Donald Trump, was joined in his opinion by Judge Raymond W. Gruender, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush.
This decision upheld a lower judge’s dismissal of a case brought by the Arkansas State Conference NAACP and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel. The groups had challenged new Arkansas state House districts, contending that they diluted the influence of Black voters. The state’s redistricting plan created 11 majority-Black districts, a number the groups argued was insufficient, asserting that the state could have drawn 16 majority-Black districts to more accurately reflect the state’s demographics.
The dissenting opinion, authored by Chief Judge Lavenski R. Smith, argued that numerous federal courts nationwide, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have considered cases brought by private plaintiffs under Section 2. Smith contended that the court should adhere to “existing precedent that permits a judicial remedy” unless the Supreme Court or Congress dictates otherwise.
“Rights so foundational to self-government and citizenship should not depend solely on the discretion or availability of the government’s agents for protection,” wrote Smith, another appointee of George W. Bush.
The ruling has sparked concerns about the potential erosion of voting rights protections, with critics arguing that limiting private individuals’ ability to bring cases under Section 2 could significantly reduce challenges to racial gerrymandering and other discriminatory election practices.
It is anticipated that this case may eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court, where the issue was previously alluded to in a 2021 opinion by Justice Neil Gorsuch. The decision in this case could have far-reaching implications for voting rights enforcement across the country.