WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a ruling on Thursday, Feb. 17, a federal judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas ruled that there is no private right of action under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which means only the U.S. attorney general — and not individuals and organizations — can bring Section 2 lawsuits. The ruling stems from Arkansas State Conference NAACP v. Arkansas Board of Apportionment, a lawsuit brought by two groups against the state’s new state House map. The lawsuit alleges that the new map dilutes Black voting strength in violation of Section 2 of the VRA and sought a preliminary injunction blocking the use of the enacted map in future elections.
In his order yesterday, Judge Lee Rudofsky — a Trump appointee — rejected decades of case precedent and ruled that “Under the current Supreme Court framework, it would be inappropriate to imply a private right of action to enforce § 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 2 can and should be enforced by the Attorney General of the United States.” This argument has been increasingly embraced by Republicans in response to redistricting lawsuits brought under the VRA. Even though the judge wrote that, “From what the Court has seen thus far, there is a strong merits case that at least some of the challenged districts in the Board Plan are unlawful under § 2 of the Voting Rights Act,” he declined to rule on the merits because he found there is no private right of action and therefore he does not have jurisdiction to hear the case. The judge appeared to anticipate concern over the future of the VRA, writing that the “Court is keenly aware that the Voting Rights Act has been and continues to be an important instrument for ensuring racial equality in voting, which in turn helps to advance racial equality in society. And the Court is keenly aware that many people are concerned about whether the Voting Rights Act will remain a strong tool for equality in the future.” He wrote that his decision is open to being overturned on appeal, highlighting that this “Court will not be the last word on it.” If upheld, this ruling would drastically limit Section 2 and diminish the already-weakened VRA. The judge gave the attorney general five days from his ruling to join the case as a plaintiff; otherwise the case will be dismissed.