A federal appeals court moved on Monday 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 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, 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.
The Monday decision by the court of appeals, 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; a 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, the 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 Ms. 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 the Monday 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, the executive director of the Honest Elections Project, a conservative group. “The Voting Rights Act (V.R.A.) remains intact as a tool to prevent actual discrimination and disenfranchisement. But the V.R.A. 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 P. Rudofsky, a district judge in eastern Arkansas appointed by former President Donald J. Trump, found that “only the attorney general of the United States may bring suit” to enforce Section 2.
The decision was appealed to the Eighth Circuit, which on Monday issued a 2-to-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?” Judge David R. Stras, an appointee of Mr. Trump, wrote. “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 that “it is intended that citizens have a private cause of action to enforce their rights under Section 2.”
The appeals court rejected that argument in its 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 Mr. 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, the director of the Voting Rights Project at the A.C.L.U., who argued the appeal on behalf of the challengers, called the Monday 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 Eighth Circuit has put the Voting Rights Act in jeopardy, tossing aside critical protections that voters fought and died for.”
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