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A federal court declines to revisit a ruling that could weaken the Voting Rights Act

Activists take part in a voting rights protest in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., in 2021.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
Activists take part in a voting rights protest in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., in 2021.

Updated January 30, 2024 at 4:56 PM ET

A federal appeals court has denied a request to revisit a ruling that could undermine a key tool for enforcing the Voting Rights Act's protections against racial discrimination in the election process.

It's the latest move in an Arkansas state legislative redistricting case, filed by civil rights groups representing Black voters in the southern state, that could turn into the next U.S. Supreme Court battle that limits the scope of the landmark civil rights law.

The full 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals released its decision Tuesday after attorneys led by the American Civil Liberties Union appealed the ruling by a three-judge panel last year.

That panel found that federal law does not allow private groups and individuals — who have for decades brought the majority of lawsuits under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act — to sue because that law does not explicitly name them. Only the head of the Justice Department, the panel found, can bring these kinds of lawsuits.

In the 8th Circuit's majority opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge David Stras, an appointee of former President Donald Trump who also wrote the panel's majority opinion, said that the panel's opinion "mostly speaks for itself."

Three judges, however, said they would grant the request for a rehearing, including Chief Circuit Judge Lavenski Smith, an appointee of former President George W. Bush; Judge Steven Colloton, another Bush appointee; and Judge Jane Kelly, who was appointed by former President Barack Obama.

"The panel's error is evident, but the court regrettably misses an opportunity to reaffirm its role as a dispassionate arbiter of issues that are properly presented by the parties," Colloton wrote in a dissenting opinion that was joined by Kelly.

According to a statement released by the ACLU, the civil rights groups that brought this Arkansas lawsuit are "exploring next legal steps," which may include a Supreme Court appeal.

For now, the panel's ruling, which upheld a lower court ruling by U.S. District Judge Lee Rudofsky, applies only to the seven states in the 8th Circuit, which includes Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Other federal courts — including a 5th Circuit panel that weighed in on a congressional redistricting case in Louisiana last November — have disagreed with the 8th Circuit panel and Rudofsky, finding that there is what's known in the legal world as a private right of action under Section 2.

Still, conservative Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas have signaled they're interested in hearing a case that focuses on this issue.

Edited by Benjamin Swasey

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Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.