Voting groups fear court ruling on Arkansas maps hurts chances to challenge election laws

Sen. John Kennedy, who chaired the Senate Redistricting Committee, argued during a 2021 special session that the GOP-drawn maps are fair to all Georgians. State lawmakers have been directed by a federal judge to draw new maps. (Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder)

A federal appeals court ruling last week is the latest sign in a shifting national landscape limiting the ability of minority voters to challenge voting laws on claims of racial discrimination. 

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling of a federal district judge who dismissed a lawsuit filed by organizations representing Black voters who alleged that redrawn Arkansas state legislative maps dilute their voting power. Even though the circuit court ruling applies only to a handful of states in the court’s jurisdiction, progressive voting rights advocates say they are concerned that another legal setback could spell trouble in Georgia and other states where similar lawsuits have been filed challenging voting laws and legislative district maps. 

The central argument in the legal battle revolves around who is entitled to sue under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.  The circuit court’s decision reiterates the lower court’s decision that only the U.S. Attorney General and the Justice Department can file lawsuits alleging violations of Section 2.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined in June to delay a lower court’s decision ordering Alabama lawmakers to redraw their congressional maps to create two districts with a majority, or near-majority, of Black constituents. 

This week Georgia lawmakers will return to the state Capitol for a special session after a federal judge struck down Republican drawn legislative maps after finding that they likely diluted Black voters’ power.

Eighth Circuit Court Judge David Stras, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, wrote in the 2-1 majority opinion that courts have assumed far too long that Section 2 is privately enforceable.

“A deeper look has revealed that this assumption rests on flimsy footing, but we can hardly say that the Section 2 claim was ‘obviously doomed to fail’ from the start,” Stras wrote in Wednesday’s ruling. “The district court thought it lacked jurisdiction anyway, which is why it dismissed the claim without prejudice.”

Rebekah Caruthers, vice president of Fair Elections Center, said that this latest court ruling and a recent dissenting opinion written by conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas reinforces the necessity for Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act that protects voting rights for minorities.

Since its introduction in 2021, the voting rights bill, named after a former longtime Georgia congressman and civil rights activist, has stalled in Congress.

There is a possibility that the Arkansas case will make its way to the Supreme Court and a decision will have a ripple effect across the country. 

Caruthers said it appears that the conservative leaning Supreme Court is willing to erode the rights of private citizens by reversing the protections that have been in place for decades.

“There’s a very strong possibility that the other civil rights laws are going to be impacted by this If certain civil rights laws do not explicitly say a private citizen can bring suit,” she said.

Georgia lawmakers have until Dec. 8 to redraw the state’s district lines after federal district court Judge Steve Jones threw out maps drawn in 2021 last month. Republican state lawmakers have disputed allegations that the new district maps were intended to discriminate against Black voters. 

On Friday, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dealt another blow to a Voting Rights Act lawsuit by reversing a judge’s ruling in 2022 that Georgia’s at-large electoral system for the Public Service Commission dilutes the voting power of Black voters.

“The Georgia General Assembly determined that the state’s PSC—a constitutionally created state commission with statewide authority and statewide responsibilities—should be elected statewide,” the court opinion said. “Georgia chose this electoral format to protect critical policy interests and there is no evidence, or allegation, that race was a motivating factor in this decision.”

Caruthers said that the longer the legal challenges to voting laws continue to play out, it increases the ability of the lawmakers representing the majority party to find ways to maintain their control to the detriment of voters.

“In Georgia we’re seeing a backlash against Black and  minority voters who came out the last couple of elections,” she said. “Those legislators who want to pick their voters, are hell bent on making it excruciatingly tough for minority voters.”

This story was provided by WABE content partner Georgia Recorder.