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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Federal court moves to drastically weaken Voting Rights Act


Election workers begin to dismantle a polling place after closing on Election Day, Nov. 7, 2023, in Pella, Iowa. Voting rights leaders have viewed the current conservative makeup of the Supreme Court as hostile to the Voting Rights Act.

By Nick Corasaniti


A federal appeals court earlier this week moved to drastically weaken the Voting Rights Act, issuing a ruling that would effectively bar private citizens and civil rights groups from filing lawsuits under a central provision of the landmark civil rights law.


The ruling, made by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, found that only the federal government could bring a legal challenge under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, a crucial part of the law that prohibits election or voting practices that discriminate against Americans based on race.


The opinion is almost certain to be appealed to the Supreme Court. The court’s current conservative majority has issued several key decisions in recent years that have weakened the Voting Rights Act. But the justices have upheld the law in other instances, including in a June ruling that found Alabama had drawn a racially discriminatory congressional map.


Passed in 1965, the Voting Rights Act was one of the most significant achievements of the civil rights movement, undoing decades of discriminatory Jim Crow laws and protecting against egregious racial gerrymanders. But the law has been under legal assault almost since its inception, and court decisions through the years have hollowed out key provisions, including a requirement that states with a history of discrimination in voting obtain approval from the federal government before changing their voting laws.


Monday’s decision by the 8th Circuit, which centered on a case in Arkansas, found that the text of the Voting Rights Act did not explicitly contain language for “a private right of action,” or the right of private citizens to file lawsuits under the law. Therefore, the court found, the right to sue would effectively lie with the government alone.


Should the ruling stand, it would remove perhaps the most important facet of the Voting Rights Act; the majority of challenges to discriminatory laws and racial gerrymanders have come from private citizens and civil rights groups.


“It will be a devastating near-death blow to the Voting Rights Act if it remains the law,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Radical theories that would previously have been laughed out of court have been taken increasingly seriously by an increasingly radical judiciary.”


But Weiser said she “would be surprised if this decision stands,” based on decades of legal precedent and recent rulings by the Supreme Court.


Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act has been at the heart of many civil rights and voting rights decisions. The case in the Supreme Court’s ruling in June against Alabama’s map was brought by a number of civil rights organizations. In 2013, the section was also used to challenge a strict voter identification law passed in Texas.


Some conservative legal scholars heralded Monday’s decision, saying it would prevent the Voting Rights Act from being used for political ends.


“Today’s decision is a win for Arkansas and for the rule of law,” said Jason Snead, executive director of the Honest Elections Project, a conservative group. “The Voting Rights Act (VRA) remains intact as a tool to prevent actual discrimination and disenfranchisement. But the VRA is not, and was never intended to be, a partisan weapon against democratically enacted election integrity laws and redistricting practices.”


The current legal debate over who can bring Section 2 claims took a significant turn in February 2022, when Judge Lee Rudofsky, a district judge in eastern Arkansas appointed by then-President Donald Trump, found that “only the Attorney General of the United States may bring suit” to enforce Section 2.


The decision was appealed to the 8th Circuit, which Monday issued a 2-1 ruling largely agreeing with the previous decision and finding that the law did not explicitly provide for a “private right of action.”


“Did Congress give private plaintiffs the ability to sue under [Section] 2 of the Voting Rights Act?” wrote Judge David Stras, an appointee of Trump’s. “Text and structure reveal that the answer is no.”


Proponents of the law and its use by private citizens point to statements made by Congress in 1982, when the Voting Rights Act was amended. In a report that accompanied the changes to the law, the House and Senate Judiciary Committees said, “It is intended that citizens have a private cause of action to enforce their rights under Section 2.”


The 8th Circuit rejected that argument in its Monday ruling, stating that the committees’ report “does not point to a single word or phrase in the Voting Rights Act in support of the conclusion that a private right of action has existed from the beginning.”


Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act has faced legal challenges before. In 2021, the Supreme Court found that Section 2 could be used to strike down voting restrictions only when they imposed substantial and disproportionate burdens on minority voters.


But the court left Section 2 intact, and it has remained a critical tool for civil rights groups, especially when challenging congressional and legislative district maps.


The battle over voting rights has entered a pitched new phase since the 2020 election. After Trump tried to overturn the outcome with a campaign casting doubt on the integrity of the country’s electoral infrastructure, Republican-led state legislatures across the country passed laws adding new restrictions to voting.


Sophia Lin Lakin, director of the Voting Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, who argued the appeal on behalf of the challengers, called Monday’s ruling a “travesty for democracy.”


“For generations, private individuals have brought cases under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to protect their right to vote,” she said in a statement. “By failing to reverse the district court’s radical decision, the 8th Circuit has put the Voting Rights Act in jeopardy, tossing aside critical protections that voters fought and died for.”


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