LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – A federal appeals court on Monday rejected a push to appeal an earlier decision on an Arkansas redistricting case, possibly setting new legal precedent under the Voting Rights Act.
The 2-1 ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit upheld a lower court’s 2022 decision that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 does not permit private lawsuits about districting. This meant the suit about voting districts brought by the Arkansas State Conference NAACP and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel had no standing before the court.
In dismissing the case, the court held that only the United States Attorney General could bring a court case about districting under the VRA, ruling that the text of the law does not explicitly call for a “private right of action” and that it remains unclear if Section 2 of the act creates an individual right to bring forth such legal challenges.
“But assuming their existence, and even discussing them, is different from actually deciding that a private right of action exists,” Circuit Judge David Stras wrote for the majority.
In his dissenting opinion, Chief Judge Lavenski Smith, argued he would follow existing precedents that allows citizens to seek judicial action until the court rules or Congress amends the statute.
“While that private right has been called into question by two Supreme Court justices the Supreme Court has yet to overrule itself on that precise issue,” Smith wrote, later adding, “Until the Supreme Court instructs otherwise, I would hold that § 2 contains an implied private right of action.”
Reactions for and against the ruling came quickly.
Barry Jefferson, president of the Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP issued a strongly-worded statement, calling the decision “devastating.”
“This decision is a devastating blow to the civil rights of every American, and the integrity of our nation’s electoral system,” he stated. “By stripping individuals of the ability to sue under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, the court has gutted one of the most critical protections against voting discrimination.”
Kymara Seals, policy director at the Arkansas Public Policy Panel called the decision a setback for voting rights.
“We are deeply disappointed by the federal appeals court’s decision, which represents a monumental setback for voting rights,” she said. “Stripping away the public’s ability to challenge unjust redistricting under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act undermines the very foundation of our democracy.
Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin issued a statement supporting the court’s decision and pointing out its potential historical implications.
“Today, the Eighth Circuit became the first federal court of appeals to make clear that Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act is not privately enforceable,” he stated. “Only the United States may bring such a claim, and as a result, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision throwing out the NAACP and ACLU’s lawsuit challenging Arkansas’s redrawn legislative districts. This is a victory for our citizens and for the rule of law.
The ACLU and ACLU of Arkansas were two of the groups representing the NAACP and Public Policy Panel in the case. Sophia Lin Lakin of the ACLU, who argued the appeal on behalf of the challengers, called the ruling a “travesty.”
“This ruling is 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. “No court had denied them the ability to bring their claims in federal court — with the sole exception of the district court, and now the Eighth Circuit.”
An ACLU of Arkansas spokesperson said the group is discussing with its clients “about all of the ways we can and should fight this injustice.”