'It's about time we took race out of the elections,' ex-Baton Rouge judge says of City Court bill that moves to House _lowres

Advocate Photo by MARK BALLARD -- State Rep. Alfred Williams, D-Baton Rouge, and Metro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle after testifying Wednesday in favor of legislation that would change the districts from which Baton Rouge City Court judges are elected.

Legislators and officials appealed to race in advocating for competing bills on how Baton Rouge’s voters should elect city court judges.

In the end, committee members opted to advance both measures — one moving to citywide elections for all five seats and the other redrawing district lines so three of the five districts are majority-black. The committee action lets the full House sort out Baton Rouge’s bickering over the court’s racial makeup.

“It just pains me to be sitting here, talking about race. It’s about time we took race out of the elections,” said Judge Alex “Brick” Wall, who retired from the Baton Rouge City Court in February and spoke in favor of House Bill 122, which would elect judges at-large.

Republican Rep. Erich Ponti, whose predominantly white district is mostly south of Florida Boulevard in Baton Rouge, proposed in HB122 moving to citywide elections for all five judgeships.

“Let’s run based on qualifications, not on the color of their skin. That’s the way it used to be,” Wall said.

“In an ideal society, that would be the premise,” responded Rep. Randal Gaines, D-LaPlace. “However, all the records and data show there is polarization in terms of race.” Minorities rarely prevail in elections held across the city or parish — at-large — rather than in designated districts, he said.

Democratic Rep. Alfred Williams, whose predominantly black district is mostly north of Florida Boulevard, wants approval of a redistricting plan. House Bill 76 would carve out three majority-black districts and two majority-white districts, instead of the three white and two black districts that exist today.

The districts were drawn up by the Legislature in 1993 to ensure black participation on the bench. Elections had been held at-large up to that point. Courts are not part of the redrawing of districts every 10 years to better comply with population shifts, as are legislators and other elected officials.

Williams said population shifts warrant changes because the Legislature drew the five City Court districts in 1993.

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 a federal lawsuit filed over the court’s makeup.

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.

Rep. Tim Burns, who chairs the House & Governmental Affairs Committee, indicated he preferred the panel choose one bill or the other. “It’s not our policy to pass out bills that contradict each other,” the Mandeville Republican said.

The committee then passed Williams’ HB76 without objection and a few minutes later voted 8-2 along racial lines to advance Ponti’s HB122.

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