NAACP case: Civil Rights icons pledge support for judgeship fight

Texas mass killing echoes locally
November 15, 2017
Shelton A. Triche
November 15, 2017
Texas mass killing echoes locally
November 15, 2017
Shelton A. Triche
November 15, 2017

Legacy leaders of the American Civil Rights movement gathered in Houma last week to support a federal judge’s decision that has major implications for Terrebonne Parish’s judicial and election systems, and to deliver a message to local elected officials.

What is perceived as a lackluster response to U.S. District Judge James Brady’s declaration that at-large election of judges in Terrebonne Parish violates the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution will be met by a push for voter registration and turnout to the polls in local elections, some intimated and others declared outright.


Isaac Newton Farris and the Rev. Derek King — both nephews of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — joined the Rev. Kenneth Sharpton Glasgow of Alabama and Dr. Byron Clay of LaPlace at a Terrebonne NAACP open house Saturday. They pledged solidarity with the organization’s attempts to create a minority sub-district for local judicial elections. Martin Luther King III, the slain civil rights leader’s son, spoke via telephone speaker to the supporters as well, praising the decision.

“My father and many others from Louisiana worked diligently to ensure that African-Americans and many who have been excluded from the process could ultimately could be voters and this maximizes the opportunity for people to vote,” King III said. “So this is a great victory for this county, a victory for this state.”

King III listed national civil rights groups watching Louisiana’s response to the ruling, which will “make sure this is going to happen.”


Also present was State Rep. Randal Gaines (D-LaPlace) vice-chair of the Louisiana Black Legislative Caucus, who said he and other caucus members will write a bill creating a minority sub-district for judicial elections in Terrebonne.

LONG ROAD TRAVELED

The audience at the NAACP central Houma offices on West Park Avenue was small but enthusiastic, and included some of the organization’s members who are plaintiffs in the court case.


They and the organization sued Louisiana’s governor and attorney general in 2014 following decades of attempts to give black voters a greater voice in selecting judges. Terrebonne Parish — all of which comprises the 32nd Judicial District — elects all five of its judges at-large, meaning all eligible voters go to the polls to fill all five benches. Judge Brady’s finding that the method violates the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution followed an eight-day trial. Brady set deadlines for each side to present a remedy to those findings, but only the plaintiffs responded. Attorneys for Gov. John Bel Edwards and Attorney General Jeff Landry instead filed a notice of appeal with the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, and also requested a stay from Brady. Brady denied the stay, ruling that it is too early in the proceedings for an appeal. The Court of Appeals rejected the case on Tuesday, but left the door open  for an appeal at a later time. Because the next judicial election in Terrebonne doesn’t take place until 2020, a three-judge panel determined, the time for an appeal is not ripe.

A legislatively created sub-district scheme that has met or can meet the judge’s approval is one option. If that doesn’t happen Brady may choose a solution himself. If so, he may also order U.S. Department of Justice supervision of Terrebonne’s judicial elections for ten years.

Attorneys for Edwards and Landry appear to agree that neither has the power to directly create a solution. Brady has ruled that they have the power to make one happen, consistent with prior Louisiana cases.


Indications of a legislative solution being crafted this session appear slim, however.

“I can’t remember the legislature weighing oin on something that is currently under consideration by a court,” said State Sen. Brett Allain R-Franklin. “I am willing to do whatever the court directs us to do but it is  premature on our part to interfere in the judicial process. The judiciary needs to speak on this and we will follow whatever final dictates they come up with.”

If Terrebonne Parish officials come up with a plan that they wish to see become legislation, Allain indicated, then it is possible that a move forward can be made. Barring that, he suggests that a final decision from Brady will not be enough, and that he would not be involved with legislation to create a minority sub-district until appeals from the state, if any, are exhausted.


Terrebonne NAACP President Jerome Boykin during and after the event spoke of the disappointment he and the other plaintiffs have felt from local elected officials — black and white — who do not appear supportive of making what Judge Brady said needs to have happen occur. The only black elected official who has openly supported the case, Boykin noted, is School Board member Greg Harding. No white elected official has openly and publicly expressed support.

Boykin has bluntly asked what part of the judge’s finding that federal law is being violated local officials don’t understand.

“Once the courts rule that you have a violation of the law they should all want to come together and do the right thing,” Boykin said. “It’s no big deal to them that the court found a violation. Our problem with this is not important to them which is why it’s moving at a snail’s pace. The power structure, the judges, the district attorney, all of them, our issue, trying to create a district for Terrebonne, is not something they are willing or wanting to do.”


CRITICISM PREMATURE?

During the Saturday event Boykin and the guests indicated that his organization and those that plan to back it, such as the National Action Network, the Congress of Racial Equality and others they are networked with, will make voters aware of who has supported the effort to comply with Brady’s decision and who has not. Some local officer-holders have said the criticism is premature.

With a legislative session not set to begin until February and judicial elections not until 2020 — when several benches are expected to become open — they say there is more time needed to explore how they approach the matter.


Other members of the local legislative delegation acknowledge that they recently met in Baton Rouge with Landry and with Matthew Block, Edwards’ counsel, along with Terrebonne Parish President Gordon Dove, for a discussion of the case. State Rep. Tanner Magee, who is an attorney, could not attend due to a scheduled court appearance.

Legislators who attended said they saw the meeting as an update from the Attorney General and an opportunity to learn more, and that they came by invitation.

“The Attorney General called us because he felt it would be a good thing since this is specifically related to Terrebonne Parish,” said Rep. Beryl Amedee R-Houma. “it was to keep us up to date. That’s the Attorney General doing his job. It was very matter of fact. There was no plotting of strategy, it was a matter of here is where the case stands and an explanation of what we can expect along the way. It was informative about procedure.”


Some legislators said that if the Black Legislative Caucus is prepared to write a bill, they should go ahead and do so. Such bills, however, have difficulty passing the legislature when a local delegation does not appear supportive. A 2011 bill creating a minority judicial sub-district in Terrebonne, supported by only one member of the delegation, failed after an impassioned speech against it by Gordon Dove, who was then a legislator.

Damon Baldone, the former state legislator who wrote that bill, was approached this week for comment.

“Had they passed it think of how many hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money already would have been saved,” said Baldone, who was term-limited out of office. Baldone said he had no regrets about writing the bill, “because it was the right thing to do.”


“YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHING YET”

Legislative reticence is something the civil rights leaders who gathered Saturday do not appear to be taking laying down. They hammered on the theme of old-fashioned methods including voter registration drives coming to town. Isaac Newton Farris, a former Southern Christian Leadership Conference president and son of Dr. King’s 90-year-old sister, Christine King Farris — herself a civil rights icon — told the gathering that the NAACP suit is not about electing a black judge, but the opportunity to elect the best person to represent the black community’s concerns.

“We want black judges don’t get me wrong,” Farris said. “But this ain’t about a black judge. The time is over for voting for people who look like you … Now we’ve got to elect people who think like we do. That’s the bottom line. You don’t have to look like me to serve me but you do have to think like I do, you have to feel what I feel.”


The Rev. Kenneth Sharpton Glasgow, the once-estranged brother of the Rev. Al Sharpton, spoke of his efforts to register jail inmates to swell voter rolls.

“One thing my brother taught me is how to have a poker face,” Glasgow said. “Even if I am sitting there bluffing you don’t know what is in my hand. Terrebonne Parish you tried to trump us but we held the trump card. We are going to be here, we are going to take this all over the country, and not only are we coming here but I’m gonna be in your jail.”

The Rev. Derek King — the civil rights martyr’s other nephew present — likened the day his uncle was killed as the moment in a serial movie when the screen goes black at what appears to be the ending.


“When Dr. King fell, the screen went black,” Rev. Derek King said. “White supremacists, racists and neo-Nazis rejoiced. They thought it was over, but they didn’t watch the screen long enough. They didn’t see ‘to be continued.’ Here we are in Terrebonne Parish in 2017 making sure the work will go on. So, Mr. Boykin and … all of the voting citizens in Terrebonne Parish remind the opponents of the law. You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

NAACP