Governor’s lawyer to enter the NAACP case

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A federal judge in Baton Rouge will get a first look this week at how lawyers for the local branch of the NAACP propose state district court judges should be elected in Terrebonne Parish, as one of the first steps toward winding up a case in which he found that the current scheme violates the U.S. Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution.

State officials were given first crack at offering a proposal to U.S. District Judge James Brady but instead filed an appeal from his decision. Their initial arguing brief must be filed with the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals by Nov. 20, unless that court decides between now and then that they don’t want to hear the case at this time.


Members of the local legislative delegation, meanwhile, are preparing to work with state officials on a compromise that might be acceptable to the court.

The goal – if Judge Brady’s ruling is to be followed – would be creation of a way to elect judges other than the at-large system currently in use. In the at large system each of Terrebonne’s five district court judges is elected by all eligible voters in the parish. Brady ruled that the system makes it impossible for black voters to elect a candidate of their choice to the bench.

One solution acceptable to the plaintiffs would be creation of at least one sub-district within the 32nd Judicial District, with a majority of black voters within its borders. Breaking up the 32nd Judicial District into five sub-districts was a solution used as an example by the plaintiffs during the trial, to show that a solution of some sort was possible.


A turning point could come later this week when Matthew Block officially notifies the court that he will be representing Gov. John Bel Edwards in the case. Up until now the governor has been represented by Attorney General Jeff Landry. Landry has hired Virginia attorney Jason Tochinsky, who has litigated in other voting rights cases, to additionally represent the state’s interest.

Whether this means that Landry and Torchinsky will no longer represent Edwards at all remains to be seen. The Democratic governor inherited his place as a defendant from former governor Bobby Jindal, who was in office when the suit was first brought.

Edwards, through court filings, has maintains that the governor does not have the power or ability to change how judges are elected, and that any such change would most likely be the purview of the legislature. Judge Brady, in his filed opinion, wrote that the governor can set the legislative wheels in motion.


In prior Voting Rights Act cases brought in Louisiana governors have been defendants, even though it is the legislature that has ultimately crafted change.

Legal observers with knowledge of the case suggest that the governor’s addition of his official counsel leaves the door open for easier development of a solution. Landry, seen as an ally of Terrebonne Parish President Gordon Dove, who opposes the sub-district solution, is not expected to back down on fighting the overall case. As a defendant Landry is free to pursue the appeal option. Edwards can also do so if he wishes, while simultaneously exploring back-channel solutions.

State Rep. Jeff Zeringue R-Houma is among local legislators who could be reached Monday morning.


“I have no problem with getting with the rest of the delegation and listening to alternatives with the understanding and the caveat that I am not of the legal profession,” Zeringue said. “There are two competing sides here and they are going to have to work their way through the process.”

Gov. John Bel EdwardsCOURTESY | Governor’s office