Federal appeals court deals blow to Voting Rights Act, ruling that private plaintiffs can’t sue

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A divided federal appeals court on Monday ruled that private individuals and groups such as the NAACP do not have the ability to sue under a key section of the federal Voting Rights Act, a decision voting rights advocates say could further erode protections under the landmark 1965 law.

The 2-1 decision by a panel of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals based in St. Louis found that only the U.S. attorney general can enforce Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits discriminatory voting practices such as racially gerrymandered districts.

The majority said other federal laws, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act, make it clear when private groups can sue said but similar wording is not found in the voting law.

“When those details are missing, it is not our place to fill in the gaps, except when ‘text and structure’ require it,” U.S. Circuit Judge David R. Stras wrote for the majority in an opinion joined by Judge Raymond W. Gruender. Stras was nominated by former President Donald Trump and Gruender by former President George W. Bush.

The decision affirmed a lower judge’s decision to dismiss a case brought by the Arkansas State Conference NAACP and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel after giving U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland five days to join the lawsuit. Neither organization immediately returned messages seeking comment Monday.

Chief Judge Lavenski R. Smith noted in a dissenting opinion that federal courts across the country and the U.S. Supreme Court have considered numerous cases brought by private plaintiffs under Section 2. Smith said the court should follow “existing precedent that permits a judicial remedy” unless the Supreme Court or Congress decides differently.

“Rights so foundational to self-government and citizenship should not depend solely on the discretion or availability of the government’s agents for protection,” wrote Smith, another appointee of George W. Bush.

The ruling applies only to federal courts covered by the 8th Circuit, which includes Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. Meanwhile, several pending lawsuits by private groups challenge various political maps drawn by legislators across the country.

A representative for the Justice Department declined to comment.

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Cassidy reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writer Mark Sherman in Washington contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press coverage of race and voting receives support from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation. See more about AP’s democracy initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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