(CN) — The Department of Justice has until Tuesday to decide whether to join a lawsuit challenging Arkansas’ reshuffling of legislative districts before a federal judge dismisses the case.
In a ruling handed down late Thursday, U.S. District Judge Lee Rudofsky said that while “there is a strong merits case that at least some of the challenged districts” violate the Voting Rights Act, the case “may be brought only by the Attorney General of the United States.”
Rudofsky, an appointee of Donald Trump, gave the Biden Justice Department five calendar days from Thursday’s opinion to become plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed by the Arkansas NAACP and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.
The judge noted that the court would “move expeditiously to a final merits determination” if the DOJ jumps into the challenge.
According to the lawsuit filed in December, the new state House map passed by the Republican-controlled Board of Apportionment dilutes the voting strength of Black citizens living in Arkansas and denies them an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect candidates of their choice.
While Black Arkansans make up more than 16% of the statewide population, the adopted plan includes only 11 majority-Black districts out of 100 total House districts. The groups say the new maps actually reduce the number of majority-Black districts compared to the previous state House map that passed in 2011, despite the Black population in Arkansas growing over the last decade while the white population declined.
But in his ruling, the judge found that he could not reach the merits of the case because private parties cannot bring a suit to enforce federal voting rights laws.
“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 wrote in his 42-page opinion.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge – one of three Republican state officials sued as a member of the Board of Apportionment, along with Governor Asa Hutchinson and Secretary of State John Thurston – applauded the ruling.
“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. Arkansans can now move forward with choosing their elected representatives,” Rutledge said in a statement, according to the Associated Press.
Jonathan Topaz, a staff attorney with the ACLU, which filed the case on behalf of the groups, said the court’s ruling ignores more than 50 years of precedent allowing private individuals to bring suit under the Voting Rights Act.
“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,” Topaz said.
In a separate ruling also on Thursday, the Arkansas Supreme Court found that Thurston is not entitled to sovereign immunity in a voting rights suit brought by the League of Women Voters of Arkansas and Arkansas United. The decision allows the groups to move forward with their challenge in state court to four new state voting laws that they claim disenfranchise voters and impede “nonpartisan voter-support activities.”
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