Man asks to amend  lawsuit involving City Court seats

Baton Rouge City Court judge elections ended Saturday, but one resident Wednesday questioned whether the winners will receive their six-year commissions on Jan. 1.

Kenneth Hall asked Chief U.S. District Judge Brian A. Jackson to permit him to amend an existing civil rights lawsuit over alleged violations of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Hall told Jackson a planned change in that suit would, if approved by court order, block those six-year commissions.

City Court judges elected this year would hold their offices indefinitely, Hall attorney Ronald R. Johnson said after Hall’s request was filed in court. If the request to withhold commissions is granted, though, new court district boundaries could be drawn and new elections held before the end of each city judge’s six-year term, Johnson explained.

“The current judges will remain in office until such time as the (civil rights) case is decided,” Johnson emphasized.

Three city judges are white, and two are black.

Hall, who is black, filed his civil rights suit against Louisiana, Baton Rouge, East Baton Rouge Parish, Baton Rouge City Court and state and local officials in October. He alleged current City Court district boundaries unlawfully dilute the voting strength of black residents.

Through his attorneys, Johnson, Joel G. Porter and Stephen M. Irving, Hall said current court district boundaries were drawn in 1993, when the city’s population was 60 percent white and 40 percent black.

Since then, Hall said in his suit, black residents have increased to 54.3 percent of the city’s population, and white residents have dwindled to 37.8 percent. He alleged failure to redraw City Court district boundaries after such a large shift in population demographics is a violation of the Voting Rights Act.

On Nov. 2, Jackson refused a request by attorneys for the state, governor, attorney general and city-parish government for immediate dismissal of Hall’s suit.

Jackson concluded then that Hall “satisfactorily demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of the underlying claims.”

The judge said Hall provided “compelling evidence” that a change in district boundaries may be necessary.

Jackson added: “Counsel for the defendants have not challenged that information.” And the judge said he “cannot ignore the significant demographic changes.”

While he did not halt the city judge elections, Jackson said new elections could be held if he rules in favor of Hall before the end of the city judges’ six-year terms.

In other developments, attorneys for city-parish government are asking Jackson to dismiss Baton Rouge City Court from the list of defendants in Hall’s suit.

Senior Special Assistant Parish Attorney James L. Hilburn and contracted attorney Christina B. Peck told Jackson in court filings Nov. 27 that City Court “has no legal capacity to sue or to be sued.”

Hilburn and Peck said the thrust of Hall’s suit is a request for Jackson “to order the state of Louisiana to adopt a redistricting/reapportionment plan for city court judgeships.”

Added Peck and Hilburn: “Neither the City Court nor the City Court judges have either the power or authority to respond to (Hall’s) demands were the court to grant them. The present apportionment of the City Court judges into the various geographical areas is the work of the state Legislature.”

Hall argued in court filings Wednesday against dismissal of City Court from the list of defendants.

Hall told Jackson that City Court judges hired either Peck or her law firm in 2004 to help “prevent the Louisiana Legislature from favorably addressing, curing and/or remedying the claims asserted in” Hall’s complaint.

Jackson has scheduled trial of the case for July 9.