A racially charged debate brought a bill that would alter Baton Rouge City Court judge positions to an abrupt halt in the Louisiana Senate on Friday, likely signaling the death of efforts to change the racial makeup of the court.
Baton Rouge’s City Court bench has been a long-standing issue, and a federal judge has strongly urged the Louisiana Legislature to reapportion to better reflect the city’s majority black population.
Currently, Baton Rouge’s five judges are elected to represent one of two voting districts that were created to drive diversity on the bench in the 1990s. One district was drawn to be majority black, while the other is majority white. But at the time those districts were created, the city still had a majority white population so three judges were to be elected from the “white” district and two from the “black” district.
Under the latest version of House Bill 1151 discussed Friday, one judge would be elected at-large, with the other four split evenly among the two voting districts.
But some senators argued that the change should be to elect three judges from the “black” district and two from the “white” one.
State Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, said she wants the court’s makeup to be “equitable, just and fair” but worried the at-large position would become more politicized.
“It’s different when you run as a minority,” she said.
While there’s no guarantee a candidate of a certain race will win, Dorsey-Colomb said she thinks that protecting the majority-minority districts is important.
Chief U.S. District Judge Brian A. Jackson has warned that he may act if state lawmakers refuse to reapportion the city court.
State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, said he thinks that the at-large position would take care of the issue, as nearly 55 percent of Baton Rouge’s population is black. Originally, the legislation sought to make all five positions elected at-large.
“Feelings sometimes get in and get us unfocused on the issues,” Claitor said. “Not everybody’s going to be on the same page.”
Claitor said constituents shouldn’t have an impact on judges, since their rulings are supposed to be based only on law. “The judiciary is not a representative office,” he said.
Senators eventually voted to return the bill to the calendar before leaving for the day after several black senators spoke out against the legislation.
“This issue is not going to go away. It will be back next year,” Dorsey-Colomb said.