Dueling Baton Rouge City Court redistricting plans hit a Louisiana Senate committee Wednesday, but only one survived.
The Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee, without objection, sent a plan that would create a majority-black City Court — three judges out of five — to the Senate floor for debate.
The panel narrowly deferred action on a plan that would have resulted in two majority-white districts, two majority-black districts and a fifth at-large, citywide district.
The development is the latest movement in a long-running dispute over the racial composition of the court now that Baton Rouge has become majority black.
The court’s racial makeup is the subject of a 2012 federal civil rights lawsuit that seeks to redistrict the City Court election boundaries. There’s been no ruling in the case. Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson has said it is “regrettable” that state legislators have failed to act in the last two sessions on census numbers that indicate election districts may need to be redrawn.
City Court’s boundaries were drawn in 1993 when Baton Rouge’s population was majority white, resulting in three white districts and two black ones.
State Rep. Alfred Williams, D-Baton Rouge, said the change to three black districts and two white ones, contained in House Bill 76, is the “fair thing to do considering what was done in 1993 and the population shift basically flip-flopped.”
Williams also said it is an appropriate time to make the change because one of the white judges — Alex “Brick” Wall — is retiring.
Williams said he has started talking to senators, asking that “they be fair to the community.”
“I think it will be real difficult for members to come now and say it’s not the fair thing to do and vote it down,” he said.
The Senate committee also considered an at-large district plan sponsored by Rep. Erich Ponti, R-Baton Rouge.
Ponti’s House Bill 122 initially called for all five City Court judges to be elected citywide. But he altered it in committee to a two white, two black and one at-large district plan.
Ponti questioned whether the city is actually majority black, noting recent annexations that have not been taken into account.
He argued that black people can be elected at-large, pointing to Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden, who was elected parishwide, and City Constable Reginald Brown.
City Court Judge Suzan Ponder supported Ponti’s bill, noting that before 1993, voters elected three black judges to the bench: Freddie Pitcher, Ralph Tyson and Curtis Calloway. “Voters look at qualifications,” she said. “They elected three incredible judges.”
But Williams said it takes more money to run citywide, which puts black candidates at a disadvantage. He also said there could be constitutional problems with the citywide election of one judge.
“That one individual would not have any greater responsibility than the four other judges and not receive any more income,” Williams said.
Nineteenth Judicial District Court Judge Janice Clark, of Baton Rouge, said legislators need to focus on “whether minority voters have a fair opportunity to elect candidates of their choice irrespective of their color.”
The panel voted 4-3 to defer action on Ponti’s bill.