Court Decision

A federal judge has ruled that the at-large method used for judicial elections in Terrebonne Parish violates the U.S. Voting Rights Act and the Constitution, and that its discriminatory effect of denying black voters the right to elect candidates of their choice was intentional.

The 91-page ruling by U.S. District Court Judge James Brady paves the way for one or more sub-districts to be created for electing judges in Terrebonne, and the scrapping of a long-standing system in which all eligible voters select each of the judges in its five divisions of court.

The Terrebonne Parish branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed suit in 2014 seeking a change to how the system operates, following numerous unsuccessful attempts to create a minority judgeship district through legislative means. The suit – and therefore the decision – solely affects Louisiana’s 32nd Judicial District, which exclusively encompasses Terrebonne Parish.

A bench trial was held March 13- 20 and April 26-28, during which the court heard from 27 witnesses, including experts who were liberally cited in the decision. More than 350 exhibits were admitted into evidence. Among the witnesses were Terrebonne Parish President Gordon Dove, District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr., and judges who currently sit on the 32nd Judicial District benches, all of whom indicated opposition to a minority judgeship through creation of a sub-district. Over 350 exhibits were admitted into evidence.

Judge Brady recited a litany of attempts by black leadership in the community to bring change, in a summation that concluded his decision, noting that the concept of district-based voting was rejected by officials on at least six occasions between 1997 and 2011.

“Taken as a whole, this timeline shows discriminatory intent,” Brady wrote, noting that local white officials including judges initially wanted an additional judgeship, but that when black leaders asked for a minority sub-district if that was to be the case, the request for an additional judge to Louisiana’s Judicial Council was withdrawn. “This occurred again with the Houma City Court—requests for an additional judgeship were made, and when local white officials heard that a request was made for a sub-district, they got involved and effectively defeated the request. In 2011, when the request was not for an additional judgeship, but rather for a rearrangement of the method of election, the reasons offered in opposition appeared even more pre-textual. The Court is unwilling to accept that the lack of public comment or the failure of the Judicial Council to issue an opinion were the true reasons behind the opposition.”

“Accordingly, the Court finds that this pattern shows that a motivating purpose in maintaining the at-large electoral scheme for the 32nd JDC was to limit the opportunity of black individuals to participate meaningfully and effectively in the political process to elect judges of their choice,” the ruling says.

“A NEW DAY IN TERREBONNE”

Judge Brady plans to schedule a conference for discussion of how the issue will be remedied, as well as the awarding of attorney fees, but a date has not yet been announced.

“It is a new day in Terrebonne Parish,” said Terrebonne NAACP President Jerome Boykin, one of the plaintiffs. “I feel like David when he beat Goliath. For the last 20 years I have been telling these racist people that the current at large method in the 32nd judicial district court discriminates against black people. The federal judge was loud and clear in his decision, that the current at large method is discriminatory.”

The individual plaintiffs in the case are black registered voters and residents of Terrebonne Parish. The suit’s chief claim was that the use of at-large voting for Terrebonne judges affords black minority voters of Terrebonne less opportunity to elect judicial candidates of their choice. Additionally, they claim a discriminatory purpose was a motivating factor in continued maintenance of the at-large system.

The suit names former Gov. Bobby Jindal as a defendant, as well as Attorney General Jeff Landry, whose staff argued the opposition case. Landry’s deputies stated that neither the governor nor the attorney general have the power to change the method in which judicial elections are handled, an argument that Judge Brady dismissed during pre-trial and post-trial briefs, as well as in his decision. As Jindal is no longer governor, the case inures to Gov. John Bel Edwards.

“The Attorney General and Governor are proper defendants in this case,” Brady ruled. “Contrary to Defendants’ assertions, they are not ‘impotent,’ and they do play a role in the 32nd JDC elections. Defendants’ argument is at odds with many voting rights cases arising in Louisiana (including some that have reached the United States Supreme Court) in which the Attorney General and the Governor were named as defendants. Furthermore, Louisiana law requires the Attorney General and the Governor to play several important roles with respect to the electoral process for the Judicial District Courts which renders them proper defendants in this case.”

WAR OF EXPERTS

In order for litigation brought under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to succeed, specific thresholds established by case-law must be met, and Judge Brady held firmly that the plaintiffs in this case did so. The devil is in the legal details, and both sides brought experts to testify. The judge made clear that in his opinion the claims stated by experts for the plaintiffs won out, in the highly technical area of proving that Terrebonne’s black population is sufficient in number and compactness to comprise a majority of the the voting age population in one single member district out of five proposed sub-districts for the 32nd District.

He also rejected a claim by the defendants that a proposed sub-district was a case of racial gerrymandering.

William S. Cooper, a former deputy assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, was the expert-in-chief for the plaintiffs on the matters of compactness and sufficiency of numbers. Demographer Michael Hefner and political scientist Ronald Weber, testified on behalf of the state.

The judge found that the experts on both sides demonstrated that the number of black voters in the proposed district exceeded 50 percent, noting that the plaintiff expert sued a formula that placed it slightly higher than that used by the defense experts.

The shape of the proposed minority district – something resembling a “C” that includes several Terrebonne Parish communities – was identified as “odd” by the defense witnesses. But Judge Brady wrote that they offered no comparisons to other Louisiana districts.

“The Court finds that the “C” shape of District 1 is not odd or unusual when compared to other electoral districts in Louisiana, such as Louisiana House District 51 which also has a “C” shape and, like District 1, extends from the south in Houma to the west and then curves back north to Schriever,” the judge wrote.

He also rejected an argument by the defense experts that black residents of Houma, Gray and Schriever are not a like community with shared interests.

“Black residents in Houma, Gray, and Schriever interact with each other frequently through the use of shared spaces,” the judge wrote, citing houses of worship, libraries and recreation facilities, as well as civic organizations such as the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They also, the judge noted, shop in the same places and have access to the same television sations and newspapers. “Moreover, black residents in Gray and Schriever consider themselves to be part of the Terrebonne community.”

Precinct splitting – the inclusion of some people from an election precinct but not others based on their addresses – was not seen as a problem by the judge despite defense objections to its presence in the proposed minority district, considering that 12 out of 86 precincts would be subject to a split. The law, Judge Brady said, does not bar precinct splitting but does say it should be kept to a minimum, a threshold he maintains was adequately met.

OPPOSED BY PARISH PRESIDENT

Precinct-splitting in the proposed sub-district was one of the objections to the plan voiced by Parish President Gordon Dove in interviews and during statements he has made about the case. Overall, Dove has said, changing the judicial voting scheme would be bad for the parish because it would cost money and also create unneeded and undesirable districting, something he referred to as “balkanization.” To balkanize, according to common definitions, is to split a state into various hostile smaller states., as happened to the Balkan region of eastern Europe when the Ottoman Empire was broken up.

Dove’s opposition is so strong – he was a leading voice while in the state legislature arguing against creation of a sub-district by statute in 2011 – that he sought to have the parish brought into the lawsuit as a defendant, a move Judge Brady denied. Even so, he had Parish Attorney Julius Hebert observe each day of the trial. At the close of the trial’s first segment the price tag for that was nearly $44,000, according to information supplied by a public records request from The Times, money Dove maintained was well-spent.

“It would be wrong for me not to do everything I can to stop this, and to be informed as well as possible in case the judge allows the minority sub-district,” Dove said in interviews during the course of the trial. “I would be lax in my duty as parish president not sending our legal people up there. The people of Terrebonne Parish have a stake in this. You have a group from New York City with the NAACP and you have individuals trying to completely rearrange and devastate our judicial system as we know it. We have to send Julius to find out what they are trying to do to our judicial system, trying to run it the way they want it and not the way the people in Terrebonne Parish want it or how it has been for however long it has been in place.”

Dove has not yet spoken publicly about Brady’s decision. If an appeal is to be made the parish will not be a party, as the onus for that would be on the governor or the attorney general.

The election of Judge Juan Pickett – who is black -- to the court, Dove has maintained, is proof that a district is not needed. That argument was also raised by the defense.

The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized, Brady wrote, that “sporadic black electoral success does not automatically defeat a vote dilution claim … especially where special circumstances, such as the absence of an opponent, incumbency, or the utilization of bullet voting may explain minority electoral success.”

While noting Pickett’s eminent qualification for the bench, Judge Brady wrote that since the former prosecutor ran unopposed, there was no way of determining whether he was an actual choice of the black community. In addition, Judge Brady noted that Pickett’s largest single campaign contributor was Gordon Dove, with former judges Edward Gaidry and Timothy Ellender, both opponents of a minority judgeship district, not far behind.

COMMENTS AWAITED

As of the filing of this story neither the governor nor attorney general had issued comments regarding the case. Assistant attorneys general Angelique Duhon Freel and Madeline Carbonette, who presented most of the defense case at trial, were not available.

Attorneys for the New York-based NAACP Legal Defense Fund, who represented the plaintiffs, were expected to issue a statement later Friday.

They include Leah Aden and Victorien Wu, who are staff lawyers for the fund. Assistance at the trial was given by Michael deLeeuw is a litigation specialist at Cozen O’Connor, an international law firm known for a commitment to social justice and ranked as one of the top 100 firms in America. Ron Wilson of the New Orleans Blake Jones law firm took an active role at trial consistent with his long history of civil rights litigation.

It was Aden who called Boykin late Thursday night to advise him of the decision.

“We were blessed as plaintiffs in this case to have some of the best attorneys in the country when it comes to this kind of litigation, and did it ever tell,” said Boykin. “Now it’s time for our legislators to do the right thing in making this a reality. I am also optimistic that the governor and attorney general would want to do the right thing after receiving this decision from the court. How can you see that something is ruled as discriminatory and keep it?”

Senior Staff Writer John DeSantis is a veteran journalist and author who grew up in New York City, but has spent most of his career in the Bayou Region. A specialist in criminal justice, he enjoys boating and historical research.

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