Federal judge urges action on BR judges election boundaries

The Louisiana Legislature has failed to act on census numbers that increasingly show election boundaries for city judges may need to be redrawn because black residents now make up the majority of the city’s population, a federal judge in Baton Rouge said Friday.

Chief U.S. District Judge Brian A. Jackson said he has repeatedly asked in hearings since October why nothing has been done on redistricting when approximately 55 percent of Baton Rouge’s population is black.

“The court has given … the Legislature every opportunity to correct this situation, and it has failed to do so,” Jackson told attorneys for the House and Senate during a hearing in a voting-rights suit.

“Your honor, I understand your frustration,” replied Assistant Attorney General Jessica Thornhill.

“There has been no finding that there has been a violation (of voting rights),” Assistant Attorney General Angelique Duhon Freel said.

“Let’s talk equity,” Jackson shot back. “Or maybe it’s naive of me to believe the Legislature (will act) without me saying ‘Do the right thing.’”

Added the judge: “It’s terribly irresponsible of the Legislature to ignore these numbers, as compelling as they are.”

Three of the judges at Baton Rouge City Court are white and two are black. Election district boundaries were drawn on the basis of a 60 percent white majority, according to black residents Kenneth Hall and Byron Sharper, who are suing for updated boundaries.

When Freel said the Legislature’s attorneys did not appear in a hearing in the suit until late May, when the Legislature’s 2013 regular session was winding down, the judge immediately rejected her argument.

State Rep. Alfred Williams, D-Baton Rouge, proposed a City Court redistricting this session that would have changed election boundaries to form three black districts and two white. Williams’ proposal, House Bill 381, died May 13 in a 40-48 vote on the House floor.

And Jackson noted that he said in a public court hearing in early November that the Legislature should consider action to reflect Baton Rouge’s growing black majority. He also noted the House and Senate filed a motion to dismiss the voting rights suit on Feb. 19.

“Nobody was caught by surprise on this,” Jackson told Freel and Thornhill, as Attorney General Buddy Caldwell sat in the audience. The judge said, “I don’t want to hear it. The Legislature and others have known about this issue for some time.”

Added Jackson: “We are talking here about constitutionally guaranteed rights.”

The hearing Friday was called for discussion of a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that nullified a congressional formula in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That formula was necessary to determine whether government bodies in Louisiana and several other states should continue to obtain advance federal approval for changes in election laws.

Jackson wanted to hear from all sides in the voting-rights suit in his court.

Ronald R. Johnson, an attorney for plaintiffs Kenneth Hall and Byron Sharper, argued that his clients’ complaints about City Court election districts should go forward because the suit was filed eight months prior to the June 25 Supreme Court decision.

“You’re suggesting it (the high court’s decision) is not retroactive?” Jackson asked.

“Yes, your honor,” Johnson replied. He said the decision regarding the challenge to the Voting Rights Act by Alabama’s Shelby County should not torpedo the case in Baton Rouge.

Johnson added that some of his clients’ complaints of voting-rights violations are rooted in actions that date back as far as 1976.

Assistant Attorney General William P. Bryan III, representing Caldwell and Gov. Bobby Jindal, said the Justice Department announced after the Shelby decision that it no longer would review proposed election-law changes in Louisiana, Alabama, seven other affected states and parts of several others.

Bryan added that a previous Supreme Court decision indicates lower courts cannot continue to rule on laws or parts of laws that have been erased by the high court.

The new Justice Department policy does not stop courts from making decisions in disputes over election laws, Jackson replied.

The judge added, however, that Bryan may be correct regarding current or future attempts to force Louisiana’s state and local governments to obtain prior federal approval for changes in election laws.

Jackson did not rule on the issue Friday. He also did not rule on motions by defendants for dismissal of the suit by Hall and Sharper. Nor did he rule on Hall and Sharper’s request for certification of their suit as a class action.

The judge said he would make those decisions at a later date. Until then, he said he would proceed with the case as if it were going to trial.