A big piece of a voting rights lawsuit over city judge election boundaries in Baton Rouge has been dismissed from federal court.
Although the suit was filed a year ago, it is governed retroactively by a June decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. That decision abolished a special formula for identifying states and parts of states that must obtain advance federal approval for proposed election laws.
Chief U.S. District Judge Brian A. Jackson issued that ruling late Friday in a case that alleges local city judge election districts should reflect a 54.5 percent majority of black residents.
White judges occupy three of the five city judgeships, which were crafted in 1993 when 60 percent of the city’s population was white. Court records show that majority has since dwindled to 37.8 percent of the local population.
Attorneys for Baton Rouge residents Kenneth Hall and Byron Sharper said Monday they will continue to press the case for new city judge election districts under laws not stripped by the high court’s 5-4 decision.
“It (the voting rights suit) is very much alive,” said Joel G. Porter, who represents Hall.
“The heart of the case is still quite viable, and the judge has said he’s going to set the case for trial,” added Stephen M. Irving, who also represents Hall.
The Louisiana Attorney General’s Office, which represents many of the defendants in the suit, declined to discuss the development.
“Since the case remains ongoing, we cannot comment at this time,” said a spokeswoman for the office, Laura Gerdes Colligan.
“We will abide by whatever the court’s decision is and whatever actions the Legislature takes,” said attorney E. Wade Shows, who represents Secretary of State Tom Schedler in the dispute.
The Legislature passes laws that specify the boundaries of city judge election districts.
Schedler does not draw boundaries for election districts. He simply reports the votes from those districts.
“We’re not going to take sides,” Shows said of the dispute in federal court.
Louisiana had been under a requirement for advance federal approval of election-law changes since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law.
Other affected states included Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia.
Over a period of 48 years, the formula used to identify voter discrimination added Alaska, Arizona and Texas to the list of states that had to obtain federal approval for new election laws.
Also added were some counties in Hawaii, Idaho, North Carolina, California, Florida, New York and South Dakota.
If Congress adopts a new formula for identifying states or parishes or counties that must seek advance federal approval of state and local election laws, Jackson ruled, Hall and Sharper may be able to again argue that Baton Rouge and Louisiana have been out of compliance with Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Section 5 was the section that required Louisiana and other affected states to send their proposed election-law changes to Washington for advance approval for 48 years.
It has not been abolished, but the Supreme Court ruled in June that the old formula in Section 4 is unconstitutional and can no longer be used to identify problem states.
Cedric Floyd, a demographer and president of the Data Center research firm, said last week that elimination of the formula for requiring advance federal approval for voting laws of affected states imposes an expensive burden on minorities.
Court suits will become the last resort for people who feel their votes are being diluted or suppressed, predicted Floyd.
“That’s what is sad to me about it,” Floyd added. “It takes tens of thousands of dollars to bring a court case.”
Both Porter and Irving, attorneys for Hall, noted Monday that the pending suit contains complaints that black votes are diluted in city judge districts in Baton Rouge.
If the allegation is proved, that would be a violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
If a violation is proved, Irving said, Section 3 of the act can be used to argue that the federal court system should order Louisiana to resume seeking federal approval before adopting proposed changes in election laws.
In hearings this year, Jackson has expressed frustration that the Legislature has not changed city judge district boundaries in the face of what he described as a compelling population change.
“The court has given … the Legislature every opportunity to correct this situation, and it has failed to do so,” the judge said in July.