Nov 20 (Reuters) – A federal appeals court ruled on Monday that only the U.S. government, not private parties, can sue under a landmark civil rights law banning racial discrimination in vote, a decision that would significantly hinder the use of the Voting Rights Act to challenge ballot access, voting rules and redistricting.

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

The vast majority of cases relating to voting rights are filed by private parties. For example, the case that prompted the Supreme Court earlier this year to invalidate Alabama’s congressional map was originally filed by a coalition of civil rights groups.

Monday’s ruling upheld a 2022 ruling by U.S. District Judge Lee Rudofsky, a federal judge in Arkansas appointed by former Republican President Donald Trump, that only the U.S. attorney general has the authority to bring lawsuits under of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. This provision prohibits voting rules that are racially discriminatory.

A voter fills out a ballot at the PS 166Q polling station in the Queens borough of New York, U.S., November 7, 2023. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File photo acquire license rights

In a 2-1 decision, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals said the text of the Voting Rights Act does not provide a “private right of action,” even though courts including the Court supreme, have been dealing with such cases for decades.

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

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

Sophia Lin Lakin, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project and an attorney for the plaintiffs, called the decision a “travesty of democracy” in a statement. The plaintiffs said they were exploring their legal options.

Reporting by Joseph Axe; Editing by David Gregorio and Mark Porter

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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