With clear misgivings, Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson on Tuesday denied a lawsuit that seeks to remake the racial balance of the five-judge Baton Rouge City Court.
Jackson, however, urged the Legislature to update its boundaries and election setup in a way he legally could not so they would conform with the changing racial demographics of the city of Baton Rouge.
“In this particular case, at this particular time, the prerogative lies with the Legislature, not with the court, to redistrict the City Court of Baton Rouge in accordance with the principles of constituent representation that should be strived toward in any elected body,” Jackson wrote.
Such hopes looked increasingly in vain Tuesday as black members and white members of the Baton Rouge legislative delegation remained divided over the best fix. In the closing hours of the legislative session, which ends Thursday, a six-person committee of legislative negotiators will try to break through the logjam.
In his 45-page ruling on the suit, which was filed in 2012, Jackson said the plaintiffs failed to prove that lawmakers discriminated on purpose when they created the City Court election districts two decades ago, back when white residents were the majority of the Baton Rouge population.
He ruled as he did despite finding “substantial grounds” to conclude the current boundaries are discriminatory in effect and that “African-American group voting strength has decreased significantly since the current system was enacted in 1993.” Jackson acknowledged that the ruling, “though legally sound, leads to a troubling practical result.”
“But the court cannot on these facts alone ascribe a discriminatory purpose to the enactment of the current electoral scheme,” he wrote.
The city court’s current districts have resulted in three white judges and two black judges being elected.
The city of Baton Rouge is now majority black, and some lawmakers argue that the majority-white court needs changing.
The Senate recently approved a plan for two majority white districts, two majority black districts and a fifth at-large, city-wide district.
In doing so, the Senate rewrote Democratic state Rep. Alfred Williams’ House Bill 76, which would result in a majority black city court — with three majority black and two majority white districts.
Williams on Tuesday urged the House to reject the Senate version.
“It needs to go to conference so we can have further discussion,” Williams said.
But Republican Rep. Erich Ponti said the Senate has spoken “loud and clear” not once but twice in supporting what he called the “two-two-one” plan. The Senate voted last week to alter Williams’ bill, then refused on a tie vote Monday to strip the change.
Ponti said the at-large judgeship is a fair compromise because the voter population of the city is close to 50-50.
“You pled with this body just to let the Senate decide,” Ponti told Williams. And, he said, the Senate complied.
“I felt the Senate was going to do … the right thing,” said Williams. “If they (senators) had done the right thing they would have done the three-two.”
One possible compromise would change to the three majority black, two majority white district plan now, then change to the Senate plan with the at-large district next time city court elections are held. That could allow a third black judge to be elected in an upcoming election to fill a vacancy created with the retirement of City Court Judge Alex “Brick” Wall, who is white.
Judge Jackson presided in early August and mid-November over the trial of plaintiff Kenneth Hall and former Metro Councilman Byron Sharper’s suit.
Steve Irving and the Washington, D.C.-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law are representing Hall and Sharper, both black residents of Baton Rouge.
The attorneys have argued that sticking to the 1993 City Court boundaries, back when Baton Rouge was majority white, has locked in an unfair racial distribution that doesn’t reflect the city’s shift over the past two decades to a majority-black population and voting-age population.
Attorneys for the city-parish and Mayor-President Kip Holden countered in post-trial filings that black residents have had an opportunity and continue to have a chance to elect their candidates of choice in the city. These attorneys also noted 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.
Despite clear sympathies towards the plaintiffs, Jackson ruled Tuesday that their failure to show discriminatory purpose in the legislative act that created the city court boundaries in 1993 was fatal to their case.
“By all accounts, the act reflected distribution of political power directly proportional to the racial composition of the total city population at the time of its passage,” Jackson wrote.
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Editor’s Note: This story was changed on June 10 to correct the spelling the word “principles” in a quote by Judge Jackson. He used the word “principles” in a quote, not “principals.”