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Federal Court Proposes to Dramatically Weaken Voting Rights Act

A federal appeals court ruled Monday to significantly weaken the Voting Rights Act (Voting Rights Act) by issuing a ruling that would prohibit individuals and civil rights groups from filing lawsuits under a key provision of this landmark law.

The ruling, rendered by the United States Court of Appeals on 8e circuit, provides that only the federal government can bring a lawsuit under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, a crucial part of the law that prohibits election or voting practices that discriminate against Americans on the basis of race.

It is almost certain that this opinion will be appealed to the Supreme Court. The Court’s current conservative majority has issued several key rulings in recent years that have weakened the Voting Rights Act. However, judges have upheld the law in other cases, including a June ruling that found Alabama had drawn up a racially discriminatory congressional map.

Passed in 1965, the Voting Rights Act is one of the most important achievements of the civil rights movement. It helped overturn decades of discriminatory Jim Crow-style laws and guard against blatant racial manipulation. But the law has been under legal attack almost since its inception, and court rulings over the years have gutted key provisions, including the requirement that states with a history of discrimination vote to get federal approval before changing their election laws.

In its decision on Monday, the Court of Appeal of 8e Circuit held that the text of the Voting Rights Act did not explicitly contain provisions relating to a “private right of action,” that is, the right of individuals to bring legal actions in under the law.

Therefore, according to the Court, the right to bring legal action would effectively belong to the government alone.

Indeed, the majority of challenges to discriminatory laws and racial agreements come from ordinary citizens and civil rights associations.

“If the Voting Rights Act remains in place, it will be a fatal blow to the law,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Radical theories that would previously have been rejected by the courts have been taken increasingly seriously by an increasingly radical justice system. »

However, Mme Weiser said she “would be surprised if this decision stands,” given the decades of legal precedent and recent Supreme Court rulings.

“Partisan weapon”

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act has been at the heart of many civil rights and voting rights decisions. The case for the Supreme Court’s June ruling against Alabama’s map was brought by a number of civil rights organizations. In 2013, this article was also used to challenge a strict voter ID law passed in Texas.

Some conservative legal scholars welcomed Monday’s ruling, saying it would prevent the Voting Rights Act from being used for political purposes.

“Today’s decision is a victory for Arkansas and for the rule of law,” said Jason Snead, executive director of the Honest Elections Project, a conservative group. “The Voting Rights Act (VRA) remains intact as a tool to prevent discrimination and disenfranchisement. But the VRA is not, and was never intended to be, a partisan weapon against election integrity laws and democratically adopted redistricting practices. »

The current legal debate over who can bring an Article 2 complaint took an important turn in February 2022, when Judge Lee Rudofsky, an eastern Arkansas district judge appointed by the Then-President Donald Trump ruled that “only the Attorney General of the United States can bring a lawsuit” to enforce Section 2.

The decision was appealed to the Court of Appeal on 8e circuit – which includes Arkansas – which issued a two-to-one decision on Monday, largely approving the previous decision and finding that the law did not explicitly provide for a “private right of action”.

“Did Congress give private plaintiffs the opportunity to sue under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act? “, wrote Judge David Stras, appointed by Mr. Trump. “The text and structure reveal that the answer is no. »

Supporters of the law and its use by individuals point to statements made by Congress in 1982, when the Voting Rights Act was amended. In a report accompanying the changes to the law, the House and Senate Judiciary Committees stated: “It is intended that citizens have a private cause of action to assert their rights under the section 2.”

The 8the Circuit rejected that argument in its ruling Monday, saying the commission’s report “does not point to a single word or phrase in the Voting Rights Act to support the conclusion that a right to vote “private action has existed from the beginning.”

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act has already been the subject of legal challenges. In 2021, the Supreme Court held that Section 2 could only be used to strike down voting rights restrictions when they imposed substantial and disproportionate burdens on minority voters.

The Court left Section 2 intact, however, and it has remained an essential tool for civil rights groups, particularly when challenging legislative and congressional district maps.

“Parody of democracy”

The battle for voting rights has entered a new phase since the 2020 election. After Mr. Trump attempted to overturn the result by waging a campaign questioning the integrity of the country’s voting infrastructure, Republican-led state legislatures passed laws adding new restrictions on voting rights.

Sophia Lin Lakin, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, who argued the appeal on behalf of opponents, called Monday’s decision a “parody of democracy.” “.

“For generations, individuals have brought actions under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to protect their right to vote,” she said in a statement. “By not overturning the district court’s sweeping decision, the 8e circuit jeopardized the Voting Rights Act, throwing out critical protections that voters fought and died for. »

This article was originally published in the New York Times.

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