Suit challenges Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District

Congressional District 2, as redrawn by the Legislature in 2011, looks like a wind-ruffled ribbon that curls from the eastern shore of Lake Pontchartrain, through New Orleans, then up the Mississippi River to northern Baton Rouge.

It is an unusual image on paper, and District 2 already has pitted candidates and voters in the Baton Rouge and New Orleans areas against each other in a congressional election.

Now, it is the focus of a court suit that could result in new election boundaries for all congressional districts in Louisiana.

District 2’s incumbent is Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, the only black member of Louisiana’s delegation to Washington, D.C.

With Richmond’s next election less than a year away, three Baton Rouge residents of District 2 are asking U.S. District Judge Shelly D. Dick to declare the district’s boundaries racially gerrymandered. The plaintiffs also want Dick to bar Louisiana from holding the 2014 election in District 2 until it is redrawn.

Through his staff in Washington, Richmond was asked for comment on the suit Friday. There was no response.

There was comment from an interested observer in Baton Rouge, though.

“In order to challenge District 2, all of the congressional districts in Louisiana would have to be enjoined from holding elections,” said Alfreda Tillman Bester, general counsel for the Louisiana Conference of the NAACP. “The NAACP will be monitoring this lawsuit to assure that it does not result in further dilution of minority voting strength in this state.”

Black residents amount to a third of Louisiana’s voting-age population, but only one of the state’s six members in the House of Representatives is black, Bester said.

Plaintiffs in the suit — retirees Maytee Buckley, Leslie Parms and his wife, Yvonne Parms — want Dick to convene a panel of three judges to draw new congressional districts.

“Between 2000 and 2010, the total population and the African-American population of New Orleans decreased,” the suit observes.

“The Louisiana Legislature cherry-picked African-American neighborhoods in New Orleans and Baton Rouge and packed them into one district,” the suit alleges. “The result is a contorted congressional district based primarily — if not entirely — on race.”

Although the suit was filed Nov. 25, the court record did not include the name of any attorney representing Louisiana as of late Friday.

The state Attorney General’s Office normally defends the state against civil suits, or arranges for the hiring of outside counsel, but the office declined comment on the suit Friday.

“We cannot provide comment,” said Laura Gerdes, a spokeswoman for the office.

Said the NAACP’s Bester: “Race was absolutely a factor in the drawing of Congressional District 2.”

Under sections of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 that were in force in 2011, Bester said, race was required to be a factor “in the drawing of all six congressional districts to prevent retrogression — that is, to prevent any loss in minority voting strength.”

In addition to its other complaints, the suit alleges, “District 2 also divides the cities of New Orleans and Baton Rouge into multiple districts, further disregarding recognized political boundaries.”

Christopher L. Whittington, former chairman of the Louisiana Democratic Party, is the Baton Rouge attorney representing the plaintiffs in the suit.

“The goal of this litigation is to bring congressional districts balance so they better reflect the makeup of the state,” Whittington said Friday.

“In District 2, there is a huge stretch along the Mississippi River where there are no voters at all. It’s a levee,” he added.

The Legislature was required to significantly redraw Louisiana’s congressional districts in 2011 because the state’s low rate of population growth caused the loss of one of its previous seven House members.

The plaintiffs note, though, that “District 2 includes portions of four different congressional districts” as they were drawn after the 2000 Census.

If Dick grants all of the plaintiffs’ requests, her decision could dramatically affect the state’s other congressional elections as well. That’s because, as Bester noted, redrawing District 2’s boundaries would require reworking of the state’s other five congressional districts.

For example, the suit says, the Legislature’s 2011 redrawing of District 2 decreased the black population of District 6, which is represented by U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge. Before 2011, blacks totaled 28.1 percent of the registered voters in Cassidy’s district, according to the suit. After the redistricting, that figure dropped to 20.1 percent.

Through the same legislative redistricting, the suit says, Richmond’s district saw a 0.9 percentage-point increase in registered black voters. That pushed District 2’s black registered voters to 61.6 percent of the total.

The geography of District 2 changed dramatically, too.

Before 2011, the suit states, District 2 “did not stretch west of Kenner or Jefferson Parish. Instead, it represented primarily one community: New Orleans.” Today, District 2 includes all of St. James Parish and parts of East Baton Rouge, Orleans, Jefferson, St. Charles, St. John the Baptist, Assumption, Ascension, Iberville and West Baton Rouge parishes.

For 48 years, Louisiana and several other mostly Southern states were required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to submit proposed election changes for review by either the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington. That advance-approval process was supposed to weed out any plans that could dilute or eliminate black citizens’ voting power.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out the formula used to decide which states remain under the requirements of Section 5, saying it was out of date.

Unless Congress enacts a new formula acceptable to the high court, Section 5 is now largely useless as a voting-rights tool in Louisiana and the other affected states.

Whittington said in the suit, however, that the Supreme Court’s decision also means Louisiana now “cannot justify the use of race as a predominant factor in drawing congressional district lines.”

The NAACP’s Bester noted that in 2011, all of Louisiana’s congressional districts were required by existing federal law to be drawn in ways that did not diminish the voting rights and powers of minority residents.

“If race was the predominant factor in the drawing of new District 2, it necessarily follows that it was the predominant factor in drawing Districts 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6, as well,” Bester said.

Court records show the state must respond to the redistricting suit by Dec. 16.