Civil rights leaders are sounding the alarm after a Trump-appointed judge wrote the majority opinion in a federal appeals court decision that undermines the legal precedent set by the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 and is sure to disproportionately affect Black and brown voters.
The 8th Circuit Court of Appeal ruled on Monday in a 2-1 decision that private citizens and groups cannot file lawsuits as a means to enforce a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that gave Black and brown voters more power at the ballot box through Congressional districting.
BREAKING: An 8th Circuit panel of federal judges has struck down the main path for enforcing the Voting Rights Act’s Section 2 protections for people of color, upholding a lower court ruling that says private individuals can’t bring lawsuits under the lawhttps://t.co/yUT8xItF1G pic.twitter.com/SfTt7xunRh
— Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) (@hansilowang) November 20, 2023
To be sure, a good number of lawsuits Voting Rights Act lawsuits decided by the U.S. Supreme Court have been filed by private individuals or groups, including and especially Allen v. Milligan and Shelby County v. Holder.
At the center of the ruling is Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which “prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in one of the language minority groups.” Monday’s ruling found that only the U.S. Attorney General can enforce Section 2. It upheld a lower court’s previous ruling to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the Arkansas State Conference NAACP and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.
U.S. Circuit Judge David R. Stras wrote in his majority opinion that the specific language in Section 2 does not make provisions for private individuals or groups to sue.
“When those details are missing, it is not our place to fill in the gaps, except when ‘text and structure’ require it,” U.S. Circuit Judge David R. Stras wrote.
The 8th Circuit just ruled that the NAACP is no longer allowed to sue under the Voting Rights Act. The decision came from two white male judges: Raymond Gruender (Bush) and David Stras (Trump). Lavenski Smith (Bush), the only Black judge, dissented.https://t.co/IsBLW96VLQ pic.twitter.com/hvhoQA5Vry
— Keith Boykin (@keithboykin) November 20, 2023
Read the full ruling by clicking here.
CNN’s senior Supreme Court analyst Joan Biskupic explained why the ruling is so significant:
At stake are the voting rights of Blacks, Hispanics and other racial minorities that have been vindicated under a section of the VRA prohibiting discrimination based on race. Section 2 has helped ensure that states draw legislative and congressional districts fairly and that minority voters have an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.
The ruling left voting and civil rights advocates stunned.
“Today’s decision is hugely disappointing and fails to protect millions of Black voters and other voters of color in the Eighth Circuit,” LDF President and Director-Counsel Janai Nelson said in a statement emailed to NewsOne. “Under this ruling, individuals and civil rights groups will be barred from seeking justice when confronted with discrimination in the voting and redistricting processes. Individuals who have experienced discrimination in voting will not be able to sue under the Voting Rights Act (VRA)’s critical Section 2 provisions unless the U.S. Attorney General decides to file a suit. We must be clear: This ruling deliberately denies and dampens the opportunity for voters of color to engage in the democratic process fairly and fully.”
The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) warned the decision undermines decades of legal precedent and urged Congres to pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act’s stalled legislation.
The 8th Circuit Court of appeals just dealt a body blow to what is left of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They are Bull Conner standing in the courthouse doors leaving Black people with no justice – unprotected from voter suppression.
— Judith Browne Dianis (@jbrownedianis) November 20, 2023
“For decades, private individuals and civil rights organizations have brought forward the majority of Section 2 cases under the VRA – including many cases this year that forced Republican-led state legislatures in Alabama, Louisiana, and Florida, among others, to redraw congressional maps to give Black voters better representation,” CBC Chairman and Nevada Rep. Steven Horsford said in a statement following the ruling. “This decision by the appellate court is ill-advised, cannot stand, and should be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which we hope will reaffirm that citizens have a private right of action to bring forward lawsuits under Section 2.”
Monday’s decision came nearly two years after it was determined that a federal judge would hear arguments in a lawsuit brought by the Arkansas State Conference NAACP and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel that challenged the state’s House maps and claimed it took away power from Black voters.
After Monday’s ruling, Barry Jefferson, political action chair of the Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP, told the Associated Press that it was “a devastating blow to the civil rights of every American, and the integrity of our nation’s electoral system.”
The ruling came on the same day that Black voters in North Carolina sued the state and alleged in the lawsuit that the state Senate’s redistricting plan “has the effect of denying Black voters an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and to elect candidates of their choice.”
This is a catastrophic decision that will impact organizations’ ability to use Section 2 to protect voters from racial discrimination in voting in all the states under the 8th Circuit’s jurisdiction: Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.
— Democracy Docket (@DemocracyDocket) November 20, 2023
Monday’s ruling was also the latest in a series of recent court decisions in which Black voters are significantly implicated.
Late last month, Georgia was ordered to draw new Black-majority Congressional voting districts after a federal judge wrote in an opinion that “the evidence before this court shows that Georgia has not reached the point where the political process has equal openness and equal opportunity for everyone.”
Weeks earlier, a new Congressional map in Alabama was drawn to include an extra majority-Black voting district. That new map in Alabama came a few months after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Alabama to draw it in a ruling that upheld a key voting rights law in the state.
Other southern states like Florida have also proposed redistricting maps that critics have decried as racist.
It’s the kind of proposition that voting rights activists have placed the right to vote under attack at a time when the nation is less than a year away from the next presidential election.
“Redistricting is one of the most pivotal processes available to determine who represents us,” Jasmine Burney-Clark, the founder of Equal Ground Education Fund and Action Fund, a Black-led community-centered civic engagement organization prioritizing voter registration, education and turnout, previously wrote in an op-ed for NewsOne. “But communities can only participate if redistricting is open and inclusive; when legislatures draw lines that are discriminatory or gerrymandered, the will of voters is subverted and diminished.