By Daniel P. Tokaji, an associate professor of law at Ohio State University's Moritz College of law and associate director of Election Law @ Moritz; Mr. Tokaji is also a member of the ACS Board of Directors.
On Wednesday of last week, private citizens and a private organization in Kinston, North Carolina filed a complaint challenging the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. This case, LaRoque v. Holder, follows last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder (NAMUDNO), which raised questions about Section 5's constitutionality but ultimately avoided deciding the question.
Plaintiffs in LaRoque are also unlikely to secure a determination of Section 5's constitutionality, though for different reasons than in NAMUDNO. There are two barriers to the federal district court deciding the constitutional issue. The first is that plaintiffs probably don't meet the prudential requirements for standing. The second barrier - even more problematic for plaintiffs - is that they lack a private cause of action to challenge the statute's constitutionality. If the district court follows existing law, it is difficult to see how it can reach the constitutional issue.
Do Plaintiffs Have Standing?
LaRoque arises from a referendum in Kinston, a municipality located in Lenoir County, North Carolina, which is covered by Section 5. Up until now, Kinston has conducted partisan elections for mayor and city council. The referendum, approved by voters in November 2008, would switch from partisan to nonpartisan elections for these offices. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) objected to this change under Section 5, on the ground that the absence of party affiliation on the ballot would harm the ability of African American voters to elect their preferred candidates of choice.
The City of Kinston has not filed a district court action seeking judicial preclearance, as it's entitled to do under Section 5. Instead, the city council has apparently decided to accept DOJ's preclearance denial, voting not to take the matter to court. For this reason, the plaintiff isn't he entity directly subject to Section 5, as was the case in NAMUDNO. Instead, plaintiffs are "voters, prospective candidates, and proponents of citizen referenda," including the one they would like the city to implement (Complaint ¶ 1.)