US appeals court ruling strikes at core of landmark voting rights law

A voter fills out a ballot at the P.S. 166Q polling place in the Queens borough of New York City

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Monday ruled that only the U.S. government, not private parties, can sue under a landmark civil rights law barring racial discrimination in voting, a decision that would significantly hamper usage of the Voting Rights Act to challenge ballot access, voting rules and redistricting.

The ruling, which will likely be appealed, could set up the next voting rights battle at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The vast majority of Voting Rights Act cases are filed by private parties. For instance, the case that prompted the Supreme Court earlier this year to strike down Alabama's congressional map was originally filed by a coalition of civil rights groups.

Monday's decision upheld a 2022 ruling from U.S. District Judge Lee Rudofsky, an Arkansas federal judge appointed by former Republican President Donald Trump, that only the U.S. attorney general is empowered to file lawsuits under section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. That provision prohibits voting rules that are racially discriminatory.

In a 2-1 decision, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals said the text of the Voting Rights Act does not lay out a "private right of action," even though courts including the Supreme Court have taken on such cases for decades.

"Assuming their existence, and even discussing them, is different from actually deciding that a private right of action exists," Circuit Judge David Stras, writing for the majority, said. Stras, a Trump appointee, was joined by Circuit Judge Raymond Gruender, who was appointed by former Republican President George W. Bush.

In a dissent, Chief Judge Lavenski Smith, also a Bush appointee, said he would have followed existing precedent unless Congress or the Supreme Court said otherwise.

Sophia Lin Lakin, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's voting rights project and a lawyer for the plaintiffs, in a statement called the ruling a "travesty for democracy." The plaintiffs said they were considering their legal options.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by David Gregorio and Mark Porter)