BR City Court election boundaries unfair to black voters, witness testifies

Repeated attempts in the mid-2000s to amend Baton Rouge City Court’s election boundaries or add a sixth judicial division to the five-judge bench were stymied by a racial divide on the court, a former City Court judge testified Monday in federal court.

State District Judge Trudy White, who spent eight years on City Court before being elected to the 19th Judicial District Court in 2009, said staunch opposition to redistricting City Court or adding another division came from the court’s white judges.

“Oh yes, there was opposition,” White testified on the opening day of a judge trial of a lawsuit challenging City Court’s 21-year-old election boundaries as racially discriminatory against black voters.

Those boundaries were drawn in 1993 when the city’s population was majority white. Today, the population is predominantly black, and the composition of City Court is three white judges and two black judges.

White, who is black, said efforts in 2004, 2005 and 2006 to address the alleged dilution of black residents’ voting power were opposed by City Court’s white judges.

“It was clear that they opposed it,” she said of the 2004 effort. “They were concerned about incumbency protection.”

White said some white City Court judges also were concerned that two white judges would be forced to run against each other.

In 2005, she added, a bid to add a sixth judgeship to City Court was scrubbed after a Louisiana Supreme Court committee conducted private one-on-one interviews with City Court judges.

“In the public meeting (with the committee), we were all for it,” White said.

The bench trial of the 2012 lawsuit is expected to last all week. Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson is presiding.

Earlier Monday, the suit’s lead plaintiff testified that black votes don’t count the same as white votes under City Court’s alleged outdated election boundaries.

“No, sir. I don’t think my vote counts the same. I just want everything equal,” Kenneth Hall, a 28-year-old black Baton Rouge resident, said while being questioned by one of his attorneys, Steve Irving.

Hall was the first witness called at the trial.

Jackson kicked off the trial by saying it is “regrettable” that state lawmakers failed to act during the past two legislative sessions on census numbers that indicate election boundaries for city judges may need to be redrawn.

Ron Johnson, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, argued in his opening statement that the city’s demographics have changed dramatically in the more than two decades since the Legislature redrew Baton Rouge City Court election boundaries.

“Plaintiffs are entitled to have an additional seat at the table,” Johnson told Jackson, referring to the fact that three of City Court’s five judges are white.

Christina Peck, who represents the city, city-parish and Mayor-President Kip Holden in the case, acknowledged the black population is the majority population in the city but noted the city’s black voting age population hasn’t yet reached 50 percent.

She also argued that incumbency is a key factor in election results — any candidate may have a problem unseating an incumbent.

Section 1 of City Court covers the western part of Baton Rouge, downtown, south Baton Rouge and most of the city north of Choctaw Drive.

Section 2 covers everything else to the east, and most of the city south of Choctaw and Greenwell Springs Road.

Section 2 is 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.

Section 1 is a majority-black subdistrict containing Divisions B and D. The sitting City Court judges in those divisions — Kelli Terrell Temple and Yvette Alexander, respectively — are black.

Hall lives in Section 2. The other plaintiff is former Metro Councilman Byron Sharper, who lives in Section 1 and intervened in the case after the suit was filed.

Sharper, who also is black, acknowledged Monday that while serving on the Metro Council from 2001 to 2008, he never sought to reapportion City Court.

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