Inside Report: Federal judge may force changes to Baton Rouge City Judge districts

A federal judge sees the fact that three of of Baton Rouge City Court’s five elected judges are white as a failure by the Louisiana Legislature to recognize the city’s significant black majority.

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 reapportion.

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. Attorneys Ronald R. Johnson, Joel G. Porter and Stephen M. Irving told Jackson in that suit that the 2010 census shows more than 54.3 percent of the city population is now black, while white residents decreased to 37.8 percent.

Yet, three of the five city judgeships are occupied by white jurists.

On Nov. 2, 2012, Jackson told attorneys for the state, city-parish and other government entities that the suit contains “compelling evidence” that changes in city judge election boundaries are necessary.

Jackson said he “cannot ignore the significant demographic changes.”

The judge also said the suit “satisfactorily demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of the underlying claims.”

In May, Porter told Jackson the House killed a bill by state Rep. Alfred Williams, D-Baton Rouge, that would have redrawn the five City Judge districts to reflect black voters’ majority population.

Jackson said local residents have asked the Legislature since 2006 to redraw those election boundaries.

“No remedy has been fashioned,” the judge said. “How much time must I give to the state?”

During a hearing July 26, Jackson was frustrated by arguments from assistant attorneys general Angelique Duhon Freel and Jessica Thornhill that the Legislature had not acted because there had been no finding of a voting rights violation.

“Maybe it’s naive of me to believe the Legislature (will act) without me saying ‘Do the right thing,’ ” the judge replied.

Freel and Thornhill fired back Sept. 10, when they filed notice of a concurrent House and Senate resolution sent to the Louisiana Supreme Court in 2011.

“Throughout the duration of this case, there has been a misconception that the Louisiana Legislature has ignored population shifts, which resulted in part from Hurricane Katrina, and which are reflected in the 2010 census data,” Freel and Thornhill wrote.

More than a year before the voting rights suit was filed, Freel and Thornhill said, the Legislature directed the Louisiana Supreme Court to produce a comprehensive study of the impact of those population shifts on court election boundaries by Feb. 15, 2014.

On Oct. 9, Johnson filed a response, asserting that neither the Louisiana Supreme Court nor its Judicial Council is studying population shifts for “consideration of apportionment of judgeship districts or the diversity issues associated with it.”

He attached a Sept. 30 letter to his brother, state District Judge Donald R. Johnson, from Chief Justice Bernette J. Johnson (no relation).

The chief justice said neither the high court nor the Judicial Council will report on apportionment and diversity issues.

She added the Louisiana Supreme Court “historically deferred on these issues to the Legislature and, as necessary, the U.S. Department of Justice.”

Bill Lodge covers federal courts for The Advocate. He can be reached at blodge@theadvocate.com.