BR City Court bill advances

Baton Rouge City Court judges would be elected at-large under a bill that cleared a Louisiana House committee Wednesday morning.

The legislation comes as a federal court judge weighs how to resolve a voting rights lawsuit over the current election set-up.

The city of Baton Rouge is majority black, but the demographics of the current districts were crafted with the specific intent of electing three white judges and two black judges. Lawsuit filers said the districts need changing so there is the potential for three black judges and two white judges.

The House and Governmental Affairs Committee endorsed House Bill 1151, which would provide for citywide elections.

HB1151 sponsor state Rep. Erich Ponti, R-Baton Rouge, said the legislation would return the election system to what it was 20 years ago.

But some wondered out loud whether the citywide system would result in more black judges.

“If you look at voter turnout, the minority turnout in most instances is much lower than white voters,” said state Rep. Alfred Williams, D-Baton Rouge.

The Baton Rouge chapter of the NAACP opposed Ponti’s legislation.

Later, Williams offered an alternative plan, House Bill 198, which would have adjusted city court election districts to provide for three black judges and two white judges

The panel rejected the idea, with only one vote for the proposition and five opposing it.

“I really believe the bill we just passed (citywide) is a fair bill,” said state Rep. Johnny Berthelot, R-Gonzales.

Berthelot said he no longer sees the need for election districts since Baton Rouge is majority black today. “You deserve those three spots percentage-wise. That should happen if people get out and vote,” he said.

Chief U.S. District Judge Brian A. Jackson has warned the Legislature for about a year that he may act if state senators and representatives refuse to address the issue. Last year, the Legislature refused to tackle the issue.

“If one of these bills gets out of the House and Senate, I believe the federal judge is going to be satisfied,” said Williams. “If one of these bills comes out at the end of the day, I’m going to be a happy man.”

The current City Court election boundaries were drawn by the Legislature in 1993, when Baton Rouge’s white residents totaled 60 percent of the population, according to a voting rights suit filed a year ago on behalf of black residents. The 2010 census shows more than 54.3 percent of the city population is now black, while white residents decreased to 37.8 percent.

Ponti’s citywide election bill now advances to the House floor for debate.