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The Eighth Circuit’s decision to gut a key provision of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act isn’t just alarming. It’s legal hypocrisy.

On Monday, a three-judge panel of the conservative federal Eighth Circuit appeals court voted 2-1 in a ruling that declared private individuals and organizations can’t sue states who violate the law.

Notably, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others pushed for the law to protect Black voters from racial discrimination.

“By stripping individuals of the ability to sue under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, the court has gutted one of the most critical protections against voting discrimination,” Arkansas NAACP political action chair Barry Jefferson said, according to the Arkansas Advocate.

Ultimately, the same organizations that fought to pass the Voting Rights Act, such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, would be barred from suing under the law if Monday’s ruling is upheld.

In a clear case of hypocrisy at its finest, the Eighth Circuit completely ignored a U.S. Supreme Court ruling just last month that accused Alabama of unfairly limiting Black voters. A federal court ultimately redrew maps for the state after Alabama Republicans refused to follow the ruling.

eighth circuit
Evan Milligan, center, plaintiff in Merrill v. Milligan, an Alabama redistricting case speaks with reporters following oral arguments at the Supreme Court in Washington, Oct. 4, 2023.

In the Alabama case, a private plaintiff, Evan Milligan, sued using Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Meanwhile, less than two months later, the Eighth Circuit released a ruling that directly contradicts the highest court in the country.

If the U.S. Supreme Court upholds Monday’s decision, it would mean only the U.S. Attorney General would have the power to sue states for violating the Voting Rights Act.

Eighth Circuit Hypocrisy

The Arkansas NAACP and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel joined in the lawsuit against Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the Arkansas Board of Apportionment, the Arkansas Secretary of State and the Arkansas Attorney General.

The groups argued the state’s 2021 redistricting map for the House of Representatives diluted the power of the Black vote.

Ignoring the recent ruling in Alabama, the Eighth Circuit decided to sidestep decades of precedent in a decision that risks further eroding our already fragile democracy.

Judge David Stras said enforcement power of Section 2 of the VRA “belonged to the Attorney General of the United States, who was given five days to join the lawsuit. When he declined, the case was dismissed.” 

However, the Eighth Circuit court’s first Black Chief Justice, Judge Lavenski Smith, dissented in the 2-1 ruling.

“Until the Court rules or Congress amends the statute, I would follow existing precedent that permits citizens to seek a judicial remedy,” Chief Justice Smith wrote.

8th Circuit Judge Lavenski Smith, inside the Richard Sheppard Arnold United States Courthouse in Little Rock, became the Chief Judge of the 8th Circuit on March 11th, 2017. (Associated Press)

“Rights so foundational to self-government and citizenship should not depend solely on the discretion or availability of the government’s agents for protection. Resolution of whether Sec. 2 affords plaintiffs the ability to challenge state action is best left to the Supreme Court in the first instance,” Smith added.

Eighth Circuit turns back the clock

As states like Georgia, Louisiana and North Carolina consider adding a Black-majority district in light of the Alabama case, the Eighth Circuit’s ruling throws those expectations into limbo.

Notably, the U.S. Supreme Court already gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013.

At that time, SCOTUS ruled that Section 5 of the Act was no longer valid. That section specified that Southern states with a history of racial discrimination must get “pre-clearance” from the Department of Justice before making any changes to voting laws.

Yet after the high court threw out that provision, arguing racism is no longer systemic, states across the South responded by passing new laws aimed at limiting voter access.

Following the Compromise of 1877, when federal troops left the South, states rioted and passed Jim Crow laws to silence Black voters and political leaders. Similarly, the 2013 SCOTUS ruling dimming the power of the Voting Rights Act has led to new attempts by Southern states to thwart Black voter representation.

Arkansas Attorney General applauds ruling

In a statement following Monday’s ruling that was as unsurprising as a sunrise, Arkansas state leaders applauded the Eighth Circuit’s decision to gut the Voting Rights Act.

“Today, the Eighth Circuit became the first federal court of appeals to make clear that Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act is not privately enforceable,” Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin stated.

“Only the United States may bring such a claim…for far too long, courts across the country have allowed political activists to file meritless lawsuits seeking to seize control of how states conduct elections and redistricting,” Griffin added.

Apparently, a state that has loosened child labor laws and restricted AP African American History courses in public schools wants us to believe they have the best interest of Black voters in mind.

In criticizing private use of the law as “political activism,” Arkansas’ attorney general ignores the blatant anti-Black “activism” coming from members of the Eighth Circuit.

Deon Osborne was born in Minneapolis, MN and raised in Lawton, OK before moving to Norman where he attended the University of Oklahoma. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Strategic Media and has...

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