White Town Leaders in Alabama Argue That Black Mayor Can’t Sue Them Under Voting Rights Act

WASHINGTON, D.C. The white town leaders in Newbern, Alabama, who allegedly locked the Black mayor out of the town hall, are now claiming that he doesn’t have the right to sue them under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

Patrick Braxton argued in a November 2022 complaint that after he was lawfully elected as mayor of Newbern, the white outgoing mayor Haywood Stokes and his town council changed the locks to the town hall, removed or destroyed town documents and denied Braxton access to the town’s mailbox and bank account. 

Braxton and his five council members claimed that these actions and Newbern’s practice of refusing to hold mayoral elections violates Section 2 of the VRA, which bans voting laws, practices or maps that curtail or take away someone’s right to vote due to their race. This section is often used to challenge laws that have a discriminatory impact.

In response to Braxton’s third amended complaint in the case, Stokes and his town council members said in a May 20 filing that his “Voting Rights claim is not a valid course of action for a private citizen.”

Republicans in courts across the country are arguing that private parties cannot sue under this section of the VRA and that only the U.S. attorney general can sue regarding perceived violations of the act.

Three federal circuit courts have ruled that private citizens do have the right to sue, including the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Alabama.

This is the first time that Stokes and other defendants have brought up this specific point in their argument that they should stay in power in Newbern.

Newbern, a majority-Black town with only 133 residents, has not had a mayoral election in almost 60 years, and instead, the town has a hand-me-down system where the current mayor appoints the next mayor. 

Since no one else officially filed for office before the election deadline, Braxton became mayor-elect on July 22, 2020, which is the protocol under Alabama law, and he selected five Black residents to join his town council.

Braxton argued in his first amended complaint that Stokes did not file for candidacy because he “knew or reasonably believed that he would not prevail in an election for the office of Mayor against Braxton.” 

Then, without notifying any of the town residents, Stokes and his council members decided to hold a special election on Oct. 6, 2020, resulting in the all-white group being elected. 

Braxton and the other plaintiffs argued that the defendants engaged in intentional racial discrimination by refusing to let Black residents participate in local elections or hold local office, violating the First and 14th Amendments. 

In March 2024, around a year and a half after the case began, the plaintiffs filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to allow Braxton, the lawful mayor, to hold office while the case is being litigated. 

In their response to the motion for a preliminary injunction, Stokes and the town council argued that the plaintiffs waited more than a year and four months to file the motion after their first complaint, so they can’t show they’ll “suffer imminent, irreparable harm” if the court doesn’t grant the motion.

The federal court referenced this argument as one of the reasons why it was denying Braxton’s motion. To be granted a preliminary injunction, a party must prove that there would be imminent and irreparable harm if it was not granted.

The judge said that they would likely succeed on the merits of their legal and constitutional claim, but that is not enough for relief to be granted before the September trial.     

For now, Braxton and his council members will not be able to govern Newbern as Stokes and the other town leaders physically prevent them from taking office and try to weaken their case by claiming they don’t even have the right to sue.

Read more about the case here.