A federal judge said Thursday he's dismissing a lawsuit challenging Arkansas' new state House districts as diluting the influence of Black voters, unless the Justice Department joins the case as a plaintiff.
U.S. District Judge Lee Rudofsky said there's “a strong merits case that at least some of the challenged districts" in the lawsuit by two groups violate the federal Voting Rights Act. But, in a 42-page decision, Rudofsky said he can't rule on the merits of the case and gave the Justice Department five days to join as a plaintiff before he dismisses it.
“After a thorough analysis of the text and structure of the Voting Rights Act, and a painstaking journey through relevant caselaw, the Court has concluded that this case may be brought only by the Attorney General of the United States," Rudofsky, who was named to the bench by former President Donald Trump, wrote.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the ruling.
The ruling comes days before candidates can begin filing for legislative and state offices in Arkansas. The one-week filing period begins on Tuesday.
The Arkansas Public Policy Panel and the Arkansas State Conference NAACP had filed a lawsuit challenging the new lines for the state’s 100 House districts and sought a preliminary inunction blocking them.
The state's redistricting plan created 11 majority-Black districts, which the groups challenging the map argued was too few. They argued the state could have drawn 16 majority-Black districts to more closely mirror the state's Black population.
The new boundaries were approved in December by the Republican-controlled state Board of Apportionment. The panel is comprised of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and Secretary of State John Thurston. Republicans hold a majority in both chambers of the Legislature.
“I am extremely pleased with the district court’s decision effectively dismissing the plaintiffs’ frivolous request to order new House district maps for the 2022 election," Rutledge said in a statement. “Arkansans can now move forward with choosing their elected representatives."
Rudofsky's ruling focused primarily on whether private parties can file lawsuits to enforce the VRA, not the claims challenging the new state House districts.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which had filed the lawsuit on behalf of the groups challenging the districts, said Rudofsky's ruling ignored decades of precedent.
“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."
The DOJ last month filed a “statement of interest" in the case that argued that private parties can file suit to enforce the Voting Rights Act.
“The limited federal resources available for Voting Rights Act enforcement reinforce the need for a private cause of action," the filing last month said.
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