The Louisiana House on Wednesday approved competing plans for the election of judges to Baton Rouge City Court.
“Let the Senate decide,” sponsor of the at-large plan Rep. Erich Ponti urged the House, which complied.
The fight over city court makeup has been ongoing since Baton Rouge became majority-black. 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.
The House approved Ponti’s at-large election plan last year, but it died in the Senate.
Today, the court is elected from districts, two of which are majority black.
Rep. Alfred Williams, D-Baton Rouge, proposed in HB76 that the districts be redrawn so that three of the districts would be majority-black.
The proposal would change the Baton Rouge City Court to reflect the population within Baton Rouge city limits, which is now 60 percent black, Williams said, adding, “I ask you to do this because it’s the fair thing to do.”
Ponti argued that there should be at-large elections so voters can elect the most qualified candidate. “It doesn’t make any difference your party or race,” said Ponti, R-Baton Rouge.
Ponti questioned the accuracy of the population statistics, noting various annexations that have occurred since the last census.
Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, disagreed, arguing that at-large elections would be detrimental to the election of black judges.
Ponti said the city-parish together, which is majority-white, has a black mayor and a black constable elected citywide.
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.
The Legislature drew the five city court districts in 1993. At the time, the census was 60 percent white and 40 percent black.