U.S. District Judge Lee Rudofsky ruled Thursday (Feb. 17) that a lawsuit challenging newly drawn House legislative districts in Arkansas must be dismissed unless the U.S. Department of Justice intervenes in the case within the next five days.
The lawsuit challenging the new boundaries was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of the Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel. Their lawsuit centered on a challenge to the redistricting plan that created 11 majority-Black House districts. The plaintiffs said the number was too low and would dilute minority representation in the Arkansas legislature.
“After a thorough analysis of the text and structure of the Voting Rights Act, and a painstaking journey through relevant case law, the Court has concluded that this case may be brought only by the Attorney General of the United States,” Rudofsky said in a 42-page ruling.
The U.S. Department of Justice had filed a “statement of interest” in the case, but was not involved in the litigation.
Arkansas’ 100-member House and 35-member Senate districts were redrawn last year by the state Board of Apportionment, which consists of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and Secretary of State John Thurston – all Republicans. The Board of Apportionment was the primary defendant in the case.
The district lines are redrawn every 10 years after the U.S. Census is completed. Due to delays with receiving Census data, Arkansas and other states were very late in drawing new legislative district boundaries.
The effect of Rudofsky’s ruling holds the new district lines intact for now, unless the U.S. Department of Justice gets involved. Filing period for political candidates is set to open in five days on Tuesday, Feb. 22.
“Under the current Supreme Court framework, it would be inappropriate to imply a private right of action to enforce Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 2 can and should be enforced by the Attorney General of the United States,” Rudofsky wrote.
“It is important to note that today’s decision has nothing to do with lawsuits to enforce the protections of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Voters can still bring suits to prevent violations of their constitutional rights, including the right to vote and the right to equal protection under the law. But only the Attorney General of the United States may bring suit to enforce Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act,” he further noted.
“For more than 50 years, private individuals have relied on Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to protect the most fundamental right in our democracy, and to prevent racial discrimination from tainting our elections,” Jonathan Topaz, staff attorney for the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. “Until today, no court had ever questioned that private individuals may enforce their rights under the VRA. But we will continue to fight against brazen and unlawful attempts to undermine voting rights in Arkansas and around the country.”