Election boundaries lawsuit heads to trial

A lawsuit that alleges Baton Rouge City Court election boundaries dilute the majority power of black voters heads to trial Monday in front of a federal judge who has warned for two years he may take action if state lawmakers failed to “do the right thing” and reapportion the districts.

The City Court boundaries were drawn by the Legislature in 1993 when Baton Rouge’s white residents totaled 60 percent of the population, the civil rights suit states. The 2010 census showed more than 54 percent of the city’s population is now black, while white residents dropped to about 38 percent, the 2012 suit contends.

Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson will preside over a scheduled five-day bench trial of the suit that claims the current city judicial districts are “tantamount to an apartheid judicial election system in favor of white judicial candidates running for City Court.”

Three of City Court’s five elected judges are white.

Jackson told attorneys for the state, city-parish and other government entities in fall 2012 that the suit contains “compelling evidence” that changes in city judge election boundaries are necessary. The judge said he could not ignore the “significant demographic changes.”

Despite his urging, state legislators failed in the 2013 and 2014 sessions to revise the way the five City Court judges are elected to reflect the city’s black voters’ majority population. The Legislature passes laws that specify the boundaries of city judge election divisions.

Local residents have asked the Legislature since 2006 to redraw those election boundaries, Jackson has said.

Section 1 includes the western part of Baton Rouge, downtown, south Baton Rouge and most of the city north of Choctaw Drive. Section 2 includes everything else to the east, and most of the city south of Choctaw and Greenwell Springs Road.

The suit was filed by Kenneth Hall, a black city resident registered to vote in Election Section 2, a majority-white subdistrict consisting of Divisions A, C and E. The sitting City Court judges in those divisions — Laura Davis, Alex “Brick” Wall and Suzan Ponder, respectively — are white.

Wall defeated Joel Porter, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs in the suit, in the fall 2012 election. Porter is black.

Black city resident Byron Sharper, who is registered to vote in Election Section 1, a majority-black subdistrict containing Divisions B and D, intervened as a plaintiff in the suit. The sitting City Court judges in those divisions — Kelli Terrell Temple and Yvette Alexander, respectively — are black.

All candidates elected to judgeships in Election Section 2 since 1993 have been white, and all candidates elected to judgeships in Election Section 1 since that time have been black, lawyers representing Hall and Sharper point out.

“The current voting scheme essentially guarantees that no African-American will be elected to City Court from Election Section 2, and no more than two African-Americans will be elected to City Court,” Hall’s and Sharper’s attorneys allege in court documents filed recently.

Those attorneys also state in court documents that as of April 1, black people constituted more than 53 percent of the city’s registered voters.

Attorneys for the governor and state attorney general, two defendants in the suit, argue in court documents that neither man has a role in the implementation of the 1993 judicial plan.

“The Louisiana Legislature created the current Election Sections for the election of City Court judges and is the proper authority to change or amend the geographic boundaries of those Election Sections,” the state’s attorneys maintain.

Attorneys for the Louisiana secretary of state, city-parish and Mayor Kip Holden, all defendants in the suit, make those same arguments. The secretary of state simply reports the votes from the districts.

The city-parish argues the city judge districts are in compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Louisiana had been under a requirement for advance federal approval of election-law changes since the act became law, but last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court abolished a special formula for identifying states and parts of states that must obtain such approval.

City Court judges serve six-year terms. The next city judge elections are in 2018.