The 2-decade-old system of electing three Baton Rouge City Court judges from a majority-white subdistrict and two more from a predominantly black subdistrict is out of whack with the city’s growing black population and should be altered, a federal judge has been told.
Attorneys for two black city residents who are challenging the City Court election boundaries argue that the 2010 census showed Baton Rouge has both a majority-black population and voting-age population. The attorneys also point out that — 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.
City Court’s boundaries were drawn in 1993 when Baton Rouge’s population was majority white.
“The system has been structured in a manner that essentially locks in a ratio — of three judges (60%) in a majority-white district to two judges (40%) in a majority-black district — that is markedly out of sync with the African-American share of the citywide population,” local lawyer Steve Irving and the Washington, D.C.-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, who represent Kenneth Hall and former Metro Councilman Byron Sharper, contend in post-trial documents filed Dec. 10 at Baton Rouge federal court.
But attorneys for the city-parish and Mayor-President Kip Holden counter in post-trial filings of their own that black residents have had an opportunity and continue to have a chance to elect their candidates of choice in the city.
The mayor’s and city-parish’s attorneys also note that East Baton Rouge Parish’s voter registration was majority white in 2004, 2008 and 2012 when Holden — who is black — was elected and twice re-elected.
Assistant Parish Attorney Ashley Beck and local lawyer Christina Peck, who represent the city-parish and mayor, acknowledge that race can be considered in developing a redistricting plan, but they stress it is not appropriate for race to be the only factor taken into account.
“Courts have routinely rejected the notion that the Voting Rights Act and U.S. Constitution require a guarantee of minority electoral success or a 1 for 1 match between minority population and elected officials who are the candidates of choice of minority voters,” Beck and Peck argue in documents filed Dec. 12.
Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson presided over the trial of Hall’s and Sharper’s 2012 suit in early August and mid-November. The time gap was the result of the plaintiff’s lead attorney at the time, Ron Johnson, collapsing Aug. 6 inside the courtroom. Johnson had to be resuscitated and was hospitalized for a time. He is back at work but is no longer representing Hall and Sharper.
Secretary of State Tom Schedler also is a defendant in the case, but his attorneys say he has no authority or ability to draw or redraw election districts.
Attorneys for the state, Gov. Bobby Jindal and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell add in post-trial documents filed in the case that the creation and assignment of voting districts falls to the Legislature.
Jackson kicked off the trial Aug. 4 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.
The state’s, governor’s and attorney general’s lawyers argue there is no law in Louisiana that requires redistricting of the judiciary after every census.
If Jackson were to rule in favor of Hall and Sharper, the state’s attorneys say the Legislature should be given a reasonable opportunity to produce a constitutionally permissible plan.
Those attorneys note there are a minimum of three more legislative sessions before the next City Court elections in 2018.
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. It 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.
Section 2 covers everything else to the east, and most of the city south of Choctaw and Greenwell Springs Road, and 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.
City Court judges serve six-year terms.