February 27, 2020, Trial News | The American Association For Justice

February 27, 2020, Trial News

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Alabama not immune from voting rights suit, 11th Circuit affirms

Mandy Brown

photo of buttons saying vote

The Eleventh Circuit has affirmed that the state of Alabama must face lawsuits brought by private parties seeking to enforce §2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits states from imposing voting prerequisites, standards, or procedures that discriminate based on race. Joining the Fifth and Sixth Circuits, the other circuits that have addressed this question, the court rejected the state’s argument that it should be shielded by sovereign immunity.
 

The Eleventh Circuit has affirmed that the state of Alabama must face lawsuits brought by private parties seeking to enforce §2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which prohibits states from imposing voting prerequisites, standards, or procedures that discriminate based on race. Joining the Fifth and Sixth Circuits—the other circuits that have addressed this question—the court rejected the state’s argument that it should be shielded by sovereign immunity. (Ala. State Conference of the NAACP v. Ala., 2020 WL 104598 (11th Cir. Feb. 3, 2020).)

The plaintiffs sued Alabama, challenging its system of selecting appellate judges with at-large elections that allow all voters in the state to participate regardless of their place of residence. The plaintiffs argue that this practice “unfairly dilutes the black vote,” preventing African American voters from equal participation in the political process. The complaint alleged, for example, that although African American voters constitute more than 20% of Alabama’s population, only two African American candidates have ever been elected to the state’s 19 appellate court seats.

The state moved to dismiss on multiple grounds. After the district court denied the motion, the defendant filed an interlocutory appeal, arguing that states are immune from private suits under the VRA.

The Eleventh Circuit reviewed the sovereign immunity doctrine, established by the Eleventh Amendment, which protects states from federal lawsuits brought by their citizens unless Congress has abrogated that immunity. Citing Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett (531 U.S. 356 (2001)), the court explained that to determine whether sovereign immunity has been lawfully limited, courts must analyze whether Congress has stated its “unequivocal intent” to do so and whether Congress acted “pursuant to a valid grant of constitutional authority.”

Although Congress’s intent to limit sovereign immunity must be evident in the applicable text, an “express abrogation clause is not required.” The Eleventh Circuit noted that in 1975, 10 years after the VRA was enacted, Congress amended §3 of the statute to state explicitly that private parties can sue to enforce §2’s prohibition on voting discrimination. Given this fact, the court agreed with the district court that Congress intended the VRA to abrogate sovereign immunity. “It is implausible,” the Eleventh Circuit wrote, “that Congress designed a statute that primarily prohibits certain state conduct, made that statute enforceable by private parties, but did not intend for private parties to be able to sue States.” 

The Eleventh Circuit also found that Congress had acted pursuant to a valid grant of power. The court observed that the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly found that Congress can “abrogate state sovereign immunity pursuant to its Fourteenth Amendment enforcement powers to redress discriminatory state action.” Although the VRA implements the Fifteenth Amendment—which made voting discrimination on the basis of race unconstitutional—the Fifteenth Amendment’s enforcement language mirrors that of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court ruled that if “§5 of the Fourteenth Amendment permits Congress to abrogate state sovereign immunity, so too must §2 of the Fifteenth Amendment.” Because the VRA reflects Congress’s authority to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment and prevent racially discriminatory voting practices, the court affirmed that sovereign immunity does not apply.

“We were pleased with the Eleventh Circuit’s opinion, an important decision in the continuing civil rights struggle against racial discrimination in voting,” said Washington, D.C. attorney Keith Harrison, who represents the plaintiffs. “The court’s recognition that private individuals can sue the state over VRA issues empowers groups like the NAACP, which bring the vast majority of VRA cases. The VRA is considered one of the most effective pieces of legislation ever passed, and this decision means that the state of Alabama—not just state officials—can be held responsible for voting discrimination.”

Harrison also emphasized that the date of the court’s opinion has important context. “We don’t believe it was a coincidence that the Eleventh Circuit issued this historic decision on February 3—the 150th Anniversary of the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted African Americans the right to vote.”