A federal appeals court Sunday lifted a delay on a lower court ruling ordering new Louisiana congressional districts, which means a special session set to start Wednesday appears to be back on track.
Republicans in the Legislature had been hoping the 5th U.S. Circuit of Appeals would stay a lower court's ruling and obviate the need for the special session. The appellate court temporarily did so late Thursday night. But by Sunday after reviewing the arguments and opinions found the state and the Legislature "have not met their burden of making a 'strong showing' of likely success on the merits."
It all means the Legislature may be forced to reconvene just nine days after it finished its nearly three-month regular session. Whether lawmakers will start grappling with new maps or opt to wait for a ruling on the merits of the case, is unclear.
The 5th Circuit, however, didn't look at the merits, but only whether the case and the special session needed to postpone until the courts decide whether maps are okay as is or need to be changed.
Both Crowley Republican Rep. John Stefanski, who is in charge of redistricting in the House, and Slidell Republican Sen. Sharon Hewitt, who carries the same responsibility in the Senate, said late Sunday that the special session will likely convene for five days at 12 noon Wednesday. Both will be meeting with legislative leadership Monday to figure exactly how to proceed.
Adjournment is slated for 6 p.m. Monday, just in time to meet U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick’s demand that the Legislature try again and create a congressional map in which Black candidates in two districts have a chance of winning.
“The 5th Circuit has not yet considered the merits of the case,” Hewitt said Sunday evening. “The legislative branch, executive branch, and judicial branch all have a role, with great deference given to the legislative branch, which has the constitutional responsibility to redistrict. We will continue to carry out our responsibilities.”
Stefanski added: “This is an evolving process that we must take day to day. I am still waiting to read the ruling.”
U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick, of Baton Rouge, issued an opinion on June 6 saying the way the Legislature drew the districts from which Louisiana elected its six-member congressional delegation didn’t seem to conform with Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act. During hearings in May that featured 22 witnesses and 244 exhibits, plaintiffs showed that Louisiana’s minority population was “sufficiently large and geographically compact” for a second majority-minority district and that voting historically has been racially polarized in this state.
Black residents make up 31.2% of the state’s voting-age population, Black voters control only around 17% of the state’s congressional districts. Meanwhile, White voters, who make up 58% of the population, form a majority in 83% — or five of six — districts.
Dick ordered the Legislature to redraw the maps by June 20 in a way that would give minorities a fighting chance of electing one of their own in two of the six congressional districts instead of just one, the 2nd Congressional District.
The plaintiffs and their lawyers will be there on Wednesday at noon when the session is gaveled in.
Jared Evans, of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., who is one of the lawyers representing the minority voters challenging the Republican maps, said Sunday, “We’re going to be ready irrespective of what the legislature does. Section 2 mandates that Louisiana have two minority opportunity districts.”
“The legislature has yet another chance to draw fair and legal maps, instead of continuing to waste taxpayer money on litigation defending unfair and illegal maps,” said Rep. Royce Duplessis, the New Orleans Democrat who is vice chair on Stefanski’s House and Governmental Affairs Committee .
Arguments on the merits of the case could happen as soon as the week of July 4, according to Sunday's ruling.
Top lawmakers have said it makes little sense to try craft a new map in six days.
The governor issued a statement after the ruling Sunday. “This is a big step in the right direction for the people of Louisiana, and I’m thankful to the U.S Fifth Circuit for lifting the stay," he said.
"This has always been a straightforward case of simple math, simple fairness and the rule of law. According to the U.S. Census, African Americans make up nearly one-third of the voting population in Louisiana, and therefore, we should have a second majority minority congressional district."
"As I stated in my letter Friday to the Senate President and Speaker of the House, there is time for the legislature to return to the Capitol and enact congressional maps that reflect the reality of our state. It is the right thing to do, and it is what we are compelled to do in accordance with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act," Edwards said in his statement.
Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, whose earlier map to add a second majority Black district may become one of the plans under scrutiny in the special session, said Sunday night the Legislature's duty is clear.
"We have to follow the court order," Fields said. "The court has basically ordered us to comply with subsection 2 of the Voting Rights Act and we should do nothing less than that."
Fields added, "If we don't do it she (Dick) has made it very clear that she will probably take it into her own hands."
The current map, which won final approval after an override of a veto by the governor, includes one majority Black congressional district, which is held by U.S. Rep. Troy Carter, of New Orleans.
Legislative leaders contend the boundaries meet the requirements of the U.S. Voting Rights Act.