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The Louisiana Supreme Court building in the French Quarter in New Orleans. Legislation that advanced April 19, 2021 would expand the number of justices on the state's high court.

An effort to expand the Louisiana Supreme Court from seven justices to nine passed its first legislative hurdle Monday when a Senate committee advanced a measure to do just that.

The aim of Senate Bill 163 is to realign the districts from which the members of the high court are now elected in order to keep each district at roughly the same population numbers.

The Supreme Court isn’t covered by the decennial redistricting as is the case for legislators and other elected officials of population, said Sen. Jimmy Harris, the New Orleans Democrat who cosponsored the legislation with Republican Sen. Patrick McMath, of Covington.

In fact, the districts from which Supreme Court justices are elected have only been redrawn once in the past 80 years, McMath said. The largest district now has 75% more voters in it then the smallest district, he added.

SB163 would require legislators to redraw the district lines of Supreme Court justices every 10 years after the U.S. Census is completed just as is done for other elected officials.

Nationally, a new effort to expand the number of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court has launched a torrent of harsh partisan rhetoric. A bill by two Democrats – U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, of Massachusetts, and U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler, of New York and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, want to raise the number of U.S. Supreme justices from nine to 13.

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Underlying the legislation was the Republican-dominated Senate’s refusal to hold for nearly a year any confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland, who was nominated by outgoing Democratic President Barack Obama. That allowed Republican President Donald Trump to name a third of the U.S. Supreme Court during his four-year tenure.

The nation’s highest court went to nine justices under a Republican-dominated government in 1869. But the last effort to increase the number of U.S. Supreme Court justices to more than was in 1936 and was blocked by opponents who accused President Franklin Roosevelt of “court packing.”

Harris and McMath said the effort to expand the high court in Louisiana doesn’t have any of those political overtones.

Answering concerns raised by state Sen. Jay Luneau, an Alexandria Democrat who in private life represents injured people in court, Harris said he wouldn’t have put his name on the bill if by expanding its membership would lead to a stacked court that supported either conservative or liberal interests.

“What I don’t want is a 7-2 court,” Harris said. “But we have an opportunity to draw fair districts.”

The legislation asks for a change in the state Constitution, therefore needs to be approved by a super majority in both chambers plus a majority of the voters statewide. If added to the constitution, nine justices would sworn into the Louisiana Supreme Court on Jan. 1, 2025.

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.