Court bars Terrebonne from minority judge lawsuit
BY JOHN DESANTIS
A federal magistrate has denied a request by Terrebonne Parish to become part of a suit brought by local NAACP members alleging that its system of selecting judges violate the U.S. Voting Rights Act.
In a 14-page decision, Magistrate Erin Wilder-Doomes said the request was not timely enough to be honored, and that the specific portion of the Voting Rights Act cited by the plaintiffs does not contain a presumptive right for the parish to be included in the suit, which was filed in 2014.
Terrebonne uses an “at-large” system of electing its five state district court judges. That means each judge, who presides over a specific division of court, is elected by all voters within the parish. The Terrebonne Parish NAACP alleges that the practice violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The at-large scheme, the plaintiffs allege, prevents minority voters from being heard in judicial elections, citing the parish’s racially polarized voting history. They seek creation of a minority sub-district to which one judge for one division of court would be chosen.
The new decision – barring any appeal by the parish – means that the case, scheduled for trial in March of 2017, will continue without foreseeable delay.
“I don’t agree with what the court said but I respect the judicial system,” Parish President Gordon Dove said, after being informed of the ruling, noting his objection to “a group from New York and (NAACP President) Jerome Boykin trying to divide our judicial districts.”
Boykin, along with attorneys at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York, who represent the plaintiffs, expressed pleasure with the decision. The national NAACP and the Legal Defense fund are separate organizations.
“We are one step closer to justice,” Boykin said. “It feels good. We agree with the court’s decision 100 percent. We want to be consistent with other state legislation when it comes to minority opportunity districts, by establishing the next open seat in the 32nd Judicial District Court to be the minority opportunity district. When we look at the history of creating minority opportunity districts in Louisiana, all the districts have been created from open seats. What we want is no different from what the state of Louisiana has done in the past.”
New York attorney Leah Aden, who leads the NAACP Legal Defense Fund team and argued against the proposed intervention by the parish, expressed similar sentiments.
“This case has been ongoing for more than two years,” Aden said. “We also are encouraged that the court agreed that the governor and attorney general are adequately representing any interest the parish government may have in the existing electoral method for the state court serving Terrebonne Parish. Plaintiffs will continue to challenge that method of election and seek an equal opportunity for black voters to elect their preferred candidates to the state court.”
Former governor Piyush “Bobby” Jindal and former Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell are the named defendants in the suit, although their successors, Gov. John Bel Edwards and Attorney General Jeff Landry, have inherited the case. Dove filed a request for the parish to intervene, making it the equivalent of an additional defendant, shortly after taking office in January. He objected to a proposal that the court be split up into five separate districts for judicial elections, alleging that the scheme would cause hardship and expense for the parish. He acknowledged that the timeliness issue might be a problem in his quest to join the suit, which he sought to have the parish join to have a “seat at the table” in pre-trial discussions and potential resolutions, and that if there is a trial the concerns specific to the parish will be heard.
Of particular concern to Dove is a proposal presented to the court that would divide specific precincts within districts for purposes of creating a minority sub-district.
The next step for the parish, Dove said, would likely be the filing of an amicus curiae brief – the legal term for a filing expressing an opinion by an entity that is neither a plaintiff nor defendant, but has knowledge or an interest in the outcome. Judges may consider opinions in such briefs but are not required to consider them in making their decisions.
Critics had questioned whether Dove’s decision to have the parish intervene was well-founded, and whether doing so was within his authority as parish president, but the issue was never officially raised.
Since the parish’s request for intervention, talks have been held with Gov. Edwards’ special counsel, Matthew Block, and Parish Council President John Navy, along with Terrebonne Parish School Board President Roosevelt Thomas and board member Gregory Harding, as well as Council Member Arlanda Williams, with Dove’s blessing.
Those parish officials, who were elected to represent minority districts designated in compliance with the Voting Rights Act, have communicated a preference for a single minority district to be designated, which is an option that could be open to the court.
The parish president said he is comfortable with the decision to attempt inclusion.
“Filing the motion was still a success in that it got the public dialogue involved, from everyone realizing what is fixing to happen, what they are trying to do to our judicial system. People are now more familiar with the fact that they are trying to divide our judiciary into five sub-districts. As parish president, I tried to intervene. We knew it was filed late and was borderline; we knew that going in.”
Dove and other opponents of the minority sub-district creation have argued that Terrebonne Parish already has a black jurist – District Judge Juan Pickett – and therefore questioned the need for a change.
The plaintiffs have countered that the purpose of the Voting Rights Act’s Section 2 is not to seat a black judge, but to make sure that the votes of black people are not diluted, maintaining that this is a key difference.
Two Terrebonne Parish judges, Johnny Walker and George Larke, will most likely not run for additional terms, due to age limits in state law. Pickett assumed his bench in 2015. Boykin suggested that if either of the two opening benches is designated for the minority sub-district, that would eliminate the uncomfortable potential of a sitting judge having to defend his bench.
Once the court decides – or if a settlement is hammered out and judicially approved – the U.S. Department of Justice would still have to approve any new voting or districting plan. •