Federal judge to hear Baton Rouge voting rights case Friday

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Attorneys in a voting-rights suit are scheduled to argue Friday whether a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court vaporized efforts to force new election-district boundaries for Baton Rouge City Court judges.

Erasing the local voting rights suit “would result in a miscarriage of justice,” attorneys for Baton Rouge residents Kenneth Hall and Byron Sharper said in advance filings. Hall and Sharper allege in the suit, filed in October in federal court, that City Court election boundaries should have been redrawn years ago because black residents have been the city’s majority since 2000.

Their attorneys — Ronald R. Johnson, Stephen M. Irving and Joel G. Porter — told Chief U.S. District Judge Brian A. Jackson that election practices that were improper in the past “were not made legal” by the Supreme Court decision of June 25.

Election boundaries for Baton Rouge City Court have not changed since the early 1990s, when white residents totaled 60 percent of the city’s population, court records show. Today, three of the city’s judges are white and two are black.

The Supreme Court recently threw out a congressional formula used for 48 years to require that certain state and local governments, including those in Louisiana, submit proposed election changes for advance approval or rejection by federal authorities in Washington, D.C.

Because that formula has been ruled unconstitutional, it must “be treated as if it had never been passed,” Assistant Louisiana Attorneys General Jessica Thornhill and Angelique Duhon Freel wrote to Jackson in a filing on behalf of the Legislature.

In the Baton Rouge case, Jackson has twice stated in court hearings that Hall and Sharper possibly could win on their arguments. But that was before the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision last month regarding a challenge by Alabama’s Shelby County to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The majority decision by Chief Justice John Roberts rejected the congressional formula used to require Louisiana, Alabama and seven other states to submit proposed election changes to be approved or rejected by federal authorities. Absent passage by Congress of an updated formula, Roberts wrote, the nine states have no obligation to seek advance federal approval of their proposed changes in election practices.

In 1965, Roberts noted, 80.5 percent of Louisiana’s white adults were registered to vote, while only 31.6 percent of black adults were registered.

“There is no longer such a disparity,” Roberts wrote.

By 2004, Roberts said, Louisiana’s white voter registration had declined to 75.1 percent, and its black registration had increased to 71.1 percent.

“Our decision in no way affects the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting,” Roberts wrote.

Justice Ruth Ginsburg argued for retention of the congressional formula in her dissenting opinion in the Shelby County case.

In some states, black residents suffered from voting discrimination a century after the Civil War, Ginsburg noted.

“Early attempts to cope with this vile infection resembled battling the Hydra,” Ginsburg added. “Whenever one form of voting discrimination was identified and prohibited, others sprang up in its place.”

Ginsburg said the majority opinion in the Shelby County case “criticizes Congress for failing to recognize that ‘history did not end in 1965.’ But the court ignores that ‘what’s past is prologue.’ ”

In advance of the hearing Friday in Baton Rouge, city-parish officials stated in court filings that all judicial voting changes mentioned by Hall and Sharper were approved in advance by federal officials.

Through contracted attorney Christina B. Peck and Senior Special Assistant Parish Attorney James L. Hilburn, those officials argued that the Supreme Court’s decision means the local voting rights suit “must be dismissed.”

Assistant Louisiana Attorneys General Douglas G. Swenson and David G. Sanders, representing white City Court Judges Suzan Ponder, Laura Prosser and Alex “Brick” Wall, also argued for dismissal of the suit by Hall and Sharper.

Secretary of State Tom Schedler — through contracted attorneys Beth P. Everett, E. Wade Shows, John C. Walsh and Grant J. Guillot — noted “Congress has not yet drafted another formula,” adding, “It may not ever do so.” Schedler said the local suit should be dismissed.

Through Assistant Attorney General William P. Bryan III, both Gov. Bobby Jindal and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said the Shelby County decision renders the local suit moot.

The attorneys for Hall and Sharper told Jackson “Shelby County should not be applied retroactively to this case” in Baton Rouge.

Johnson, Irving and Porter asked the judge to declare the current judicial election boundaries the result of “past violations of” the Voting Rights Act.