Appeals court hears arguments on Voting Rights Act scope

Jan 11, 2023, 1:13 AM | Updated: 3:20 pm

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A federal appeals court heard arguments Wednesday over whether the Voting Rights Act allows private citizens to sue to enforce a key part of the 1965 law prohibiting discriminatory voting practices.

Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union and the Justice Department told an 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel that a judge in an Arkansas redistricting case was wrong to say that only the U.S. attorney general could file such lawsuits.

U.S. District Judge Lee Rudofsky made that conclusion as he dismissed the lawsuit by two groups challenging Arkansas’ new state House districts.

“For over 40 years, dozens of federal courts have heard hundreds of Section 2 claims brought by federal plaintiffs,” Sophia Lin Lakin, co-director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, told told the three-judge panel during a 44 minute hearing. “In that time, not one court denied the plaintiffs their day in court because of a lack of private action.”

The ACLU represents the Arkansas Public Policy Panel and the Arkansas State Conference NAACP, which sued challenging the new map for the House districts approved by a state panel in 2021. The groups argued the redrawn maps diluted the influence of Black voters in the state.

The state’s redistricting plan created 11 majority-Black districts, which the groups challenging the map argued was too few. They argued the state could have drawn 16 majority-Black districts to more closely mirror the state’s Black population.

An attorney for the state said the 1965 law never explicitly allows for private citizens to sue to enforce Section 2, and noted that Congress has never added such language over the years.

“I would say that Congress has left this as an open issue,” Solicitor General Nicholas Bronni said.

Jonathan Backer, an attorney with the Justice Department, told the panel that voting rights have traditionally been viewed as private rights.

“It’s quite clear from the text of the statute and the legislative history and ratification history that Congress always intended private enforcement of voting rights statutes,” Backer said.

Arkansas’ House map was approved in 2021 by the state Board of Apportionment, which is comprised of the state’s GOP governor, attorney general and secretary of state. Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers of Arkansas’ legislature.

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Appeals court hears arguments on Voting Rights Act scope