Federal Appeals Court Decision Puts Voting Rights Act at Risk
A recent decision by a conservative federal appeals court has the potential to severely weaken one of the most significant federal laws of our time, the Voting Rights Act. The ruling stated that only the federal government has the authority to sue and enforce a crucial section of this vital statute. Shockingly, over the past four decades, only 15 out of 182 successful suits brought under this section were initiated solely by the Department of Justice.
The Voting Rights Act’s Historic Success
Since the end of Reconstruction, the Voting Rights Act has played a pivotal role in combatting the discriminatory laws and practices adopted by Southern states to suppress Black voters. Its impact has been tremendous – in Mississippi, for example, Black voter turnout rose from a mere 6% in 1964 to an impressive 59% in 1969. Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act specifically prohibits state and local election practices from discriminating against voters of color, and has been reinforced over the years to eliminate the need for proof of intentional discrimination, focusing instead on demonstrating discriminatory impact.
Section 2’s Crucial Role in Protecting Voting Rights
Even under the conservative Roberts court, Section 2 has been instrumental in safeguarding against racial discrimination in voting. In a recent case, Allen vs. Milligan, the court ruled that Alabama violated the Voting Rights Act by drawing congressional districts that limited the representation of Black voters. Consequently, a new map was implemented with two majority-Black districts, rectifying the injustice. However, the 8th Circuit’s recent ruling poses a significant obstacle to enforcing Section 2, disallowing private individuals and organizations such as the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund from suing to protect voting rights. This ruling challenges decades of established practice and undermines the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act.
A Decade of Continuous Threats to the Voting Rights Act
This latest blow to the Voting Rights Act comes ten years after the Supreme Court struck down Section 5, another critical provision of the law. Section 5 required jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting to seek approval from the U.S. attorney general before making substantial changes to their election systems. However, the Supreme Court deemed this “preclearance” requirement unconstitutional, citing a violation of “equal state sovereignty.” Consequently, states like North Carolina and Texas swiftly implemented discriminatory practices that were previously blocked.
The Arkansas Case and the Implications for Voting Rights
The recent case that led to this troubling ruling originated in Arkansas when the local NAACP and other groups challenged new state House districts. The plaintiffs argued that the Arkansas map diluted the voting strength of Black citizens, violating Section 2, and pushed for the creation of five additional majority-Black districts to ensure fair representation. However, the majority opinion by 8th Circuit Court Judge David Stras, a Trump appointee, concluded that only the federal government could bring such lawsuits, contradicting decades of legal practice. This decision raises concerns about the limited resources of the Justice Department to pursue Section 2 cases, especially under a conservative administration that may choose not to act.
Protecting Fundamental Rights and Ensuring Remedies
Chief Judge Lavenski Smith, in his dissent against the appeals court’s decision, aptly described the ruling as a major threat and upheaval to our democracy. He emphasized that rights integral to self-government and citizenship should not depend solely on the government’s discretion or availability for protection. It is crucial to remember that more than two centuries ago, the Supreme Court declared in Marbury vs. Madison that the violation of a right must have a remedy. If the Supreme Court does not overturn the 8th Circuit’s decision, it will leave little recourse for violations of one of our most essential rights – the right to vote.