Ground Zero: Is Baton Rouge City Court a test case for the Voting Rights Act ?
The issue of appropriate minority representation in the legislative and judicial branches of Louisiana government is one that has been litigated for decades, and that litigation has surfaced again, in light of the US Supreme Court’s repealing one of the provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The repealed provision (also known as “Section 4”) required any election change (like changing a precinct line or redrawing districts) to be precleared by the Justice Department for specified jurisdictions – generally in the Deep South. In plain terms, this means that even though the Voting Rights Act remains intact, the absence of this provision means that federal oversight has generally been removed for election changes.
So what does this have to do with the Baton Rouge City Court ? To answer this question, it’s important to discuss the history of the makeup of this five judge court. Originally, City Court judges were elected at large (i.e., by all voters residing within the Baton Rouge city limits). Because the city of Baton Rouge has always had a sizable minority population (As of the 2010 Census, that “sizable minority” is now a 55% black majority), a lawsuit was filed in 1986 alleging dilution of minority voting strength as a result of this “multi member district” (it is worth noting, however, that in 1988, black candidates were successful in two of the five at-large City Court races they contested).
The plaintiffs prevailed in their lawsuit, and as a result, the creation of minority sub districts were required in several judicial districts (in Louisiana, a judicial district may cover an entire parish, or contain several parishes). Included in this legal remedy was Baton Rouge City Court: a black majority sub district was drawn that elected two judges, while the white majority sub district elected three judges.
While this remedy addressed the level of minority judicial representation when it was mplemented two decades ago, as time went on, two new problems surfaced: (1) while district boundaries for the legislature, Congress, Public Service Commission, and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) were redrawn after the 2000 and 2010 Censuses, judicial sub districts were left unchanged both times, and (2) over the past two decades, demographic changes in East Baton Rouge Parish (particularly in the city of Baton Rouge) have resulted in black voters’ having additional electoral clout – clout they did not yet have when the lawsuit was filed in 1986.
In demographic terms, the 2010 Census shows that the city of Baton Rouge is 55-39% black/white. When examining the demographics of the City Court subdistricts, the “majority” sub district is 50-43% white, while the “minority” sub district is 75-20% black. Furthermore, the “minority” district is 80-17% black/white by voter registration and voted 89-10% for Obama. The “majority” sub district, on the other hand, is 57-38% white by voter registration, and it supported Obama by a 52-46% margin. Below is a graphical representation of the majority (in blue)/minority (in red) sub districts:
Proposed district changes
In the 2013 legislative session, state representative Alfred Williams (D-Baton Rouge) attempted to make the following changes to the makeup of the City Court, given that the city of Baton Rouge has a 55% black majority by population: (1) have the minority sub district elect three judges and the “majority” sub district elect two judges (in other words, take a judgeship away from the “majority” sub district and give it to the “minority” sub district), and (2) redraw the lines of the sub districts to reflect the 2010 Census population. His bill would have the following impacts: the “minority” sub district would go from 80-17% to 73-23% black by voter registration, and the Obama percentage would decrease from 89-10 to 84-14%. The “majority” district would see a more significant change: the 57-38% white voter registration would increase to 68-27%, and a 52-46% Obama margin would now become a 57-41% Romney subdistrict.
From a “one man one vote” perspective, this proposed change would more closely approximate the current demographics within the city limits of Baton Rouge; the minority district would contain 59% of the city’s population and would elect 60% (3 out of 5) of the judges. While it is true that the present “majority” sub district contains 61% of the population and elects 60% (3 out of 5) of the City Court judges, the white population in the “majority” sub district is a narrow 50% majority.
An alternative: the “3-3 plan”
Rep. Williams’ plan failed on the House floor 40-48 during the 2013 session (with 17 abstentions). Given that it is nearly impossible to get an incumbent judge to agree to “sacrifice” his/her seat, it’s worth, from a “reality check” perspective, to explore a second alternative: add a 6th seat to the Baton Rouge City Court, and give that 6th seat to the minority sub district. As that is being done, redraw the sub district lines to reflect the 2010 Census by giving each “three member district” an equal district population. The political demographics of this proposed “3-3 plan” would be as follows:
“Minority” sub district (which would elect three judges): 92-7% Obama, 85-11% black by voter registration
“Majority” sub district (which would also elect three judges): 58-39% Romney, 73-22% white by voter registration
Why are we discussing this?
On the surface, the City Court districting options are purely hypothetical: the Louisiana House rejected the proposed change, and there are no current plans by legislators to redraw judicial districts. However, a federal judge recently called the Louisiana Legislature “irresponsible” for not making the necessary adjustments during the 2013 legislative session, and given his statements, some legal intervention is certainly possible, particularly since a lawsuit was filed last year over this very issue.
This is where the Voting Rights Act may come into play: while the invalidated provision dealt with the need for specified jurisdictions to seek pre approval for elections changes, there is still a provision of the law (known as “Section 3”) where the federal government can bring a jurisdiction in under the scope of the Voting Rights Act/federal supervision if “they can prove an elections law is intentionally discriminatory.” Judge Jackson’s remarks, combined with recent actions by Attorney General Eric Holder against the state of Texas for their Voter ID law, means that the makeup of the Baton Rouge City Court may very well be an early “test case” for “bailing in” a jurisdiction. In other words, explicit federal oversight over the conduct of elections in the city of Baton Rouge, the state of Texas, and/or other jurisdictions.
So given this history and the (still) enforceable provisions of the Voting Rights Act, the makeup of the Baton Rouge City Court may become a test case for the Voting Rights Act under a provision of the law that has been sparingly used thus far.