After several unsuccessful legislative tries and an ongoing court battle over the makeup of the Baton Rouge City Court, two competing measures were filed recently that would bring the Louisiana Legislature back into the fray.
A federal civil rights challenge of the court’s makeup is awaiting a ruling by chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson from a trial he kicked off in August by opining how “regrettable” it was that state legislators failed to act.
Over the past few years, both the federal court and state legislators have wrestled with whether subdistricts should be redrawn to better reflect the city’s majority-black population.
Two Baton Rouge legislators from different political camps have, again, forwarded separate legislative proposals attempting to end the dispute.
Democratic state Rep. Alfred Williams, whose predominantly black district is mostly north of Florida Boulevard, wants approval of a redistricting plan carving out three majority-black districts and two majority-white districts — the reverse of what exists today. That’s the formula recommended in 2012 when Kenneth Hall and former Metro Councilman Byron Sharper filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court saying the current system dilutes African-American voting strength.
The Baton Rouge City Court was created in 1900. It handles civil claims up to $35,000 and small-claims cases of less than $5,000. Its criminal jurisdiction is over misdemeanors that are offenses generally punishable by a fine of not more than $1,000 and/or a jail term of not more than six months.
Ponti and Williams filed legislation for consideration by the 2015 regular session of the Legislature, which opens April 13. Both bills are similar to measures that died in the 2014 Legislature.
Ponti’s at-large city judgeships bill last year made it out of the House but died in a Senate committee. Williams’ measure did not clear the first hurdle of a House committee.
Ponti argues that at-large elections, like the one proposed in his House Bill 122, which he filed March 19, takes Legislature out of the equation as population shifts occur.
“It’s in the best interest for the community to decide who’s the most qualified judge,” Ponti said. “At-large is the way to make that happen.”
However, Williams said population shifts warrant changes since the Legislature drew the five city court districts in 1993.
“Twenty years ago, when they established those subdistricts, the census was 60 percent white and 40 percent African-American. Twenty years later, we have 60 percent African-American and 40 percent white,” Williams said. “It’s just the fair thing to do because of the shift.”
In addition, he said, African-American candidates have not been able to raise the amount of money a white candidate can raise to run a good campaign. Williams said he has hopes for legislative passage of this year’s version because nothing in the Senate has changed that says it will allow Ponti’s bill to pass.
The measure he filed on March 9, House Bill 76, is a little different from his 2014 version, Williams said. It has some of the district lines altered to include new areas annexed into the city as a byproduct of the St. George incorporation movement.
The 2010 census showed that more than 54 percent of the city’s population is black, while white residents dropped to about 38 percent, according to the federal lawsuit.
The citywide approach won’t alleviate the problem of dilution of black voter strength, Williams said.
“Even though African-Americans outnumber whites in the city, the turnout for African-American voters is normally low,” Williams said.
Follow Marsha Shuler on Twitter, @MarshaShulerCNB. For more, follow http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.