Whatever just came over the Louisiana Legislature, can we bottle it and save it for another day?
I’m talking about the stunningly lopsided passage of a bill that could end Louisiana’s nearly unique and highly suspect system of allowing juries to issue criminal convictions, even in murder cases, with up to two holdouts. The once-longshot constitutional amendment picked up surprising steam as it traveled through the legislative process, then passed the House easily Monday with no debate. The only remaining step is for the state’s voters to weigh in this fall.
The existing law is rooted in long-ago Jim Crow racism and continues to tilt the scales against African-American defendants today, a recent series by my Advocate colleagues convincingly showed. Still, even the bill’s author, state Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans, thought it had little chance of passing at the session’s outside.
That was before he and the groups that have long advocated for the change, including the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU, teamed up with some heavy hitters from the other end of the political spectrum, Republican lawmakers such as state Sen. Dan Claitor of Baton Rouge and state Rep. Sherman Mack of Albany, along with conservative interest groups such as Americans for Prosperity and the Louisiana Family Forum. The result was a powerful bloc encompassing both social justice advocates and constitutionalists suspicious of government’s power over the individual.
For the first time since its birth in the Jim Crow era, a Louisiana law that allows juries t…
There are some encouraging lessons here, including that people of good will but different points of views can still find common ground, even in this often ugly political environment.
Another is that superficially contradictory political philosophies can co-exist. Although the racial justice argument is associated with one point of view and government overreach argument with another, plenty of supporters said they found both persuasive.
It helped that the other side was singularly unpersuasive. Opponents’ best argument centered on the tactical advantage the current system gives prosecutors, while their worst insultingly downplayed the system’s racial history and implications.
It also helped that some muscle memory kicked in. Although changing the jury rule was not a part of last year’s big, bipartisan criminal justice reform drive aimed at reducing Louisiana’s world-leading incarceration rate, the coalition in support of change didn’t need to be formed from scratch. It just reassembled around a new but clearly connected issue.
The cynical side of me wonders if it also helped that Gov. John Bel Edwards was not involved, so passage of the measure doesn’t give him a win to talk about when he runs for reelection next year. Because the bill is a constitutional amendment, it required the support of supermajorities in both houses but does not need a gubernatorial signature. It is worth nothing that Edwards has voiced support from the sidelines, though.
But mostly, the cynical side of me is taking the day off. A vast majority of Louisiana lawmakers did the right thing, and the only suitable response is to say “job well done.” Now it’s up to their constituents to weigh the issue as carefully and thoughtfully, and hopefully to come to the same conclusion.
Until Louisiana’s longstanding, nearly unique system of allowing divided juries to issue cri…