A private right of action, also referred to as a private cause of action, allows an individual or organization to bring a lawsuit in court based on an alleged violation of a law and to seek relief to remedy that alleged violation. If there is no private right of action, only the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) can file a lawsuit under a given statute, severely limiting the power behind a law by restricting who can sue under it.  

A private right of action can either be express or implied. Congress creates an express private right of action when it explicitly defines that private individuals and groups can file lawsuits pertaining to the legislation at hand. The National Voter Registration Act, for example, states that any “person who is aggrieved by a violation” of this law can follow certain steps and, if needed, file a federal lawsuit to address any violations.

An implied private right of action is defined by courts rather than Congress. If Congress does not explicitly spell out who or how individuals can bring federal lawsuits to enforce the law at hand, it is up to the court system to determine if a non-governmental figure has the ability to pursue relief via the courts.

The DOJ has limited time and resources; lawsuits by private parties have long been essential in advancing civil and voting rights. Under current U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, the DOJ has filed a total of nine voting rights and redistricting lawsuits, five of which are actively ongoing. As of April 10, 2024, the DOJ’s five ongoing lawsuits represent only 2.3% of the 216 active voting rights and redistricting cases that Democracy Docket is currently tracking. 

Defending democracy podcast The Right Wing’s Latest Legal Theory

Now, in multiple lawsuits, conservative actors are increasingly asserting that certain voting rights protections have no private right of action. The most potent argument contends that there is no private right of action under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). 

On Nov. 20, 2023, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that private litigants can no longer bring lawsuits under Section 2 of the VRA. The entire 8th Circuit upheld the catastrophic decision that impacts voters across seven states: Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. If more courts embrace this theory — one largely unmoored from history and precedent — then the power of voting protections could be entirely  diminished.

In the news

8th Circuit Keeps in Place Decision That Drastically Weakens Voting Rights Act

The entire 8th Circuit today denied a request from civil rights groups seeking reconsideration of decision that drastically weakened the Voting Rights Act across seven states.

Republican Attorneys General Attack Voting Rights Act in Latest Amicus Brief

Last week, Republican attorneys general from Alabama and 12 other states submitted an amicus brief further escalating Republicans’ ongoing attack on the Voting Rights Act.

Louisiana Republicans Ask 5th Circuit To Rehear Critical Voting Rights Act Case

On Friday, Louisiana Republicans asked the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to rehear a case with major implications for redistricting and the future of the Voting Rights Act. 

from our desk

This Civil Rights Provision Protects Your Vote from Simple Mistakes

Trivial mistakes happen in voting and voter registration; the Civil Rights Act’s Materiality Provision aims to protect voters from unnecessary disenfranchisement because of these errors. Without a private right to action, the provision would become unenforceable.

Who Can and Cannot Sue To Protect Voters? It Depends on This Legal Concept

Lawsuits seeking to enforce voting rights laws are a crucial tool in defending and expanding the right to vote, but there's an ongoing debate over who has the right to bring these lawsuits in the first…

The Conservative Legal Movement’s Latest Target

To undermine federal voting laws, conservatives argue that private individuals or organizations cannot bring lawsuits under them. If courts embrace this theory, the power of voting protections would be greatly diminished.

In the courts

Arkansas Legislative Redistricting Challenge

Lawsuit filed on behalf of the Arkansas State Conference NAACP and Arkansas Public Policy Panel challenging Arkansas' new state House map passed following the release of 2020 census data.

Filed: Decided:

Kansas Dodge City Electoral System Challenge

Lawsuit filed on behalf of three Latine voters in Dodge City, Kansas challenging the at-large system used for electing members to the Dodge City Commission.

Filed: Decided:

Texas Online Registration

Lawsuit challenging Texas's law requiring voter registration applications to include original signatures.

Filed: Decided: