The impending retirement of Baton Rouge City Court Judge Alex “Brick” Wall is being viewed by some as an opportunity to settle a legal dispute over the racial makeup of the City Court judges.
Wall, one of three white judges in City Court, announced this month that he plans to retire later this month, four years short of the end of his six-year term.
For the past few years, both the state Legislature and federal court have grappled with the debate over whether to change the districting for City Court judges to better reflect the city’s majority-black population.
“Look at the makeup. Years ago it was 60-40 white, now it’s (majority) black. There’s no reason not to change it. It’s the right thing,” said State Rep. Alfred Williams, D-Baton Rouge. “Judge Wall’s retirement provides us with a great opportunity to do it now without having a sitting judge lose his or her seat.”
The City Court judicial districts are currently divided into three majority-white subdistricts and two majority-black subdistricts. Candidates can run for any seat as long as they live in the city of Baton Rouge, but each seat corresponds to a specific voting subdistrict.
In 2012, Kenneth Hall and former Metro Councilman Byron Sharper filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, saying the districts should be redrawn so there are three judges elected from majority-black districts.
The boundaries in place now were set in 1993, when Baton Rouge’s population was majority-white. The 2010 census showed that Baton Rouge now has both a majority-black population and voting-age population.
As of Jan. 1, 2014, black residents accounted for some 53 percent of the city’s registered voters while white residents accounted for 41 percent.
Williams said he is drafting a bill in the state Legislature to address the change. He introduced bills the past two years that were both unsuccessful. Other legislators also previously attempted to change the makeup to five at-large seats, but were unsuccessful.
In August, U.S. District Court Judge Brian Jackson kicked off the trial by saying that it was “regrettable” that state lawmakers failed to act during the past two legislative sessions.
Lawyers for the state argue there is no law in Louisiana that requires redistricting of the judiciary after every census.
Williams said he thinks the federal suit has added pressure to the Legislature to take action this year. But he said he also thinks Wall’s retirement creates an opportunity that will make it easier for lawmakers to enact some change without the uncomfortable act of kicking out a sitting judge or preventing a longtime judge from being able to run for his seat.
An election for Wall’s vacant seat, which must be called by the governor, is expected to take place in October, said Lon Norris, city court administrator.
Local attorney Steve Irving, who is representing Sharper and Hall, said they are still banking on a court decision.
“We are hopeful Judge Jackson will decide liability issues in our favor,” he said. “But Judge Wall’s retirement possibly does make implementation of a remedy easier, if there is a finding of liability.”
Sharper said he hopes Jackson doesn’t wait for the Legislature before making a ruling.
“I hope he does something soon,” Sharper said. “I don’t have any confidence in the Legislature to fix it. We’ve been waiting for years.”
On Wednesday, Baton Rouge Metro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle asked the council to pass a nonbinding resolution to urge the Legislature to redraw the districts ensuring three majority-black judicial districts.
She also said Wall’s retirement created an “opportune time for us to step forward and settle the lawsuit.”
The Metro Council ultimately rejected her resolution, as well as a substitute motion from Councilman John Delgado to urge the Legislature to create five at-large judicial districts.
Staff writer Andrea Gallo contributed to the story. Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter @rebekahallen.