Restriction on Private Right of Action under Voting Rights Act Upheld by Federal Appeals Court in Arkansas Redistricting Case
A federal appeals court has decided not to reconsider a ruling that Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act does not allow private individuals to sue over alleged violations of voting rights. The case concerned a challenge to Arkansas’ 2021 redistricting map for the state House of Representatives. The American Civil Liberties Union had filed a lawsuit against the Arkansas Board of Apportionment on behalf of several organizations, including the Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel. The suit alleged that the map dilutes the Black vote in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
The decision not to allow a rehearing was made by a panel of judges of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, majority of whom cited procedural issues as the reason. They noted that the case brought by the plaintiffs concerned whether Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act allows for private enforcement. It did not take into account the possibility of enforcing Section 2 through another federal law, Section 1983, which allows suing government officials who have violated one’s civil rights. The judges concluded that private enforcement under Section 2 was not allowed based on lack of briefing on the issue.
In a lengthy dissent, Circuit Judge Steven Colloton and Circuit Judge Jane Kelly disagreed with the decision. They pointed out that previous successful cases have been brought by private individuals under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act for several decades. Judge Colloton called the panel majority’s decision an “ambitious and unprecedented ruling” that voters do not have a private right of action under Section 2 of the VRA.
Reaction from Plaintiffs and Defendants
Commenting on the decision, the plaintiffs said they were still deciding whether to appeal to the US Supreme Court. Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin praised the decision, saying that “This decision is a win for our citizens and sends a message that the rule of law governs in Arkansas.” The president of the Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP, Barry Jefferson, called the decision “a slap in the face to 60 years of precedent” and said it will make it more difficult for individuals to hold the government accountable. ACLU of Arkansas Executive Director Holly Dickson said she’s concerned about the widespread effects of Tuesday’s ruling and the dangerous precedent that could have far-reaching implications for democracy.
The 8th Circuit’s ruling affirms that private individuals cannot sue under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. This decision applies to states within the 8th Circuit’s jurisdiction, which includes Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. However, citizens in Arkansas neighboring states, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, do have a right to private action under Section 2 because they are covered by the 5th Circuit ruling that was last month upheld.
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