Federal Appeals Court Rules To Limit Voting Act Rights Challenges

Federal Appeals Court Rules To Limit Voting Act Rights Challenges

It is likely that this case will be heard by the Supreme Court.

On Nov. 20, a federal appeals court issued a groundbreaking ruling, altering decades of legal precedent by limiting the authority to bring lawsuits related to the Voting Rights Act exclusively to the U.S. Attorney General. The decision, reached by a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in a 2-1 split verdict, was motivated by the ambiguity in the legislation regarding the circumstances under which private individuals or organizations like the NAACP may pursue legal action, the Associated Press reported.

The dispute revolved around Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which additionally mandates the inclusion of voting districts in electoral maps where candidates preferred by minority populations have a viable chance of winning. In North Carolina, on the same day that the St. Louis court made its ruling, two Black voters filed a lawsuit alleging that the state’s new electoral map reduces the voting power of a district’s Black constituents.

Rodney Pierce and Moses Matthews claim that the map deprives them of their right to elect their preferred candidates. Section 2 has long been evoked when Black voters in states with a history of voter suppression sue over violations of the Voting Rights Act. Individuals or groups generally allege that the voting maps in those states reduce their political self-determination. Legal experts say that mandating the challenge can only come from the federal level could have the effect of severely limiting these challenges. 

According to the lawsuit, “The totality of the circumstances establishes that the enacted state Senate districting plan has the effect of denying Black voters an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and to elect candidates of their choice.” 

North Carolina’s Republican-controlled senate agreed to adopt a plan that experts say puts their party in prime position to retain its supermajority. However, the Republican architects of the voting map say that they did not take the race of constituents into account when creating it.

North Carolina’s Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue accused the map of being an exercise in “cracking and packing,” saying that the map is “‘cracking on steroids.”

Cracking refers to the practice of diluting the voting power of the opposing party across districts, while packing is shorthand for concentrating voting power in a few districts to compensate for the lack of voting power on other districts. Blue also told the AP, “The plan enacted by the General Assembly in late October splits, cracks and packs Black voters to dilute their votes and blunt their ability to fully participate in the democratic process.”

The federal appeals court’s ruling was made by two Republican judges, one appointed by George W. Bush and the other appointed by Donald J. Trump. Judge David R. Stras, the Trump appointee, authored the majority decision.

Stras wrote, “When those details are missing, it is not our place to fill in the gaps, except when ‘text and structure’ require it.”

Another Bush appointee, Chief Judge Lavenski R. Smith, wrote in a dissenting opinion, “Rights so foundational to self-government and citizenship should not depend solely on the discretion or availability of the government’s agents for protection.”

Smith also said that unless Congress or the Supreme Court intervened, the court should follow the precedent that already exists. 

It is likely that this case will be heard by the Supreme Court, as the Justice Department filed a statement of interest in the case, noting that private parties can indeed file lawsuits to ensure the Voting Rights Act is being followed, but made no official statement on the case itself.

According to the AP, the ACLU was displeased with the ruling and is currently weighing options. The Congressional Black Caucus meanwhile, issued a statement calling on the Supreme Court to review the court’s ruling, saying, “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.”

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