The fate of a legal battle over whether strip club dancers in Louisiana can be younger than 21 now rests with a federal appellate court.
A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Wednesday in the case, as attorneys for three dancers who sued in 2016 after a new state law barred them from dancing nearly nude faced off against attorneys for the state.
Although the court did not announce a decision, two judges appeared sympathetic to a claim made by the dancers that parts of the law in question are overly vague.
The dancers have also claimed the ban is too broad and is discriminatory. District Judge Carl Barbier said last year that they were likely to succeed on their claims, and he blocked enforcement of the law until a full trial on the issues.
The state, however, argues that the law is easily understood. It says one portion of the law that the dancers take issue with — the meaning of the phrase “breasts and buttocks are exposed to view” — has been on the books for years, without issue.
But Judge Edith Brown Clement said Wednesday that the phrasing, as well as the state’s argument that dancers younger than 21 can still perform while wearing bikinis, leaves much room for interpretation.
“There are lots of different sized women,” she said to the state’s attorney. “They would wear their bikinis differently. How is a woman going to know what size to buy?”
Judge Leslie Southwick echoed the criticism, saying that other state laws dealing with similar issues are more specific.
However, he said the lower court came to a “weak” determination that the law is also too broad, a signal that the appellate panel could side with Barbier on one claim but not the other.
An injunction on only one point is needed to block enforcement of the law.
State lawmakers approved the law, Act 395, in 2016 after advocates pointed to the 2015 death of 19-year-old dancer Jasilas Wright as evidence that young dancers needed greater protection. Wright was left for dead on Interstate 10 in Metairie by a man investigators said was her pimp.
Critics also cited sanctions issued to several strip clubs in 2016 by State Police and the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, which accused the businesses of attracting drugs and prostitution.
Three anonymous dancers sued to block the law shortly before enforcement was due to begin in New Orleans.
Barbier didn’t consider the dancers' claim of sexual and age discrimination and rejected a separate claim that the law blocked their right to express themselves.
In court Wednesday, Jeremy Grabill, an attorney for the dancers, asked the appellate judges to reconsider the rejected claims and to uphold those Barbier agreed with.
Scott Bergthold, representing state Attorney General Jeff Landry, asked the judges to lift the injunction even if they had qualms about the law’s specificity.
The case had been scheduled months ago to be heard this week, but the hearing by chance followed a flurry of recent activity involving New Orleans strip clubs and dancers.
A recent ATC raid led to the temporary closing of eight clubs, followed by the permanent closing of three. That leaves Bourbon Street with just 10 clubs during the biggest weekend of Carnival, the strip’s busiest season of the year.
Angry dancers protested the raids in the French Quarter last week.
In addition, the New Orleans City Planning Commission on Tuesday rejected key components of a plan put forward by some City Council members to limit and gradually reduce the number of strip clubs. Instead, the commission voted to subject any new clubs to a stringent review.
The council has the last word, however, on what will happen.