On judgeship, compromise is needed

Next week, most likely, the legislature’s House and Governmental Affairs Committee will take up HB 861, proposed by Rep. Randal Gaines D-LaPlace, who is chairman of the Louisiana’s Black Legislative Caucus.

The bill is a response to the Aug. 17, 2017 federal court decision which found that the existing structure for electing judges to the 32nd Judicial District, which takes in all of Terrebonne Parish, violates the U.S. Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution.

Local officials are distressed that the finding by the late Judge James Brady concerning the constitution paints Terrebonne as a community that does not embrace inclusive principles. They agree with Attorney General Jeff Landry that the state should stay out of the process for now and force Judge Shelly Dick, Brady’s successor in the case to determine how Louisiana should address the violation. The game-plan at that point would be a petition to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. That could result in the Voting Rights Act itself going on trial, which precisely what some interests nationwide would like to see.

So long as the Voting Rights Act remains in place, the consistent findings nationwide that at-large districts are violations in fact are not likely to change. Even the quite conservative Fifth Circuit may have difficulty finding fault with Judge Brady’s ruling. It was written without hyperbole, using lean language. it has fairly much addressed many if not all of the issues that local lawmakers and other officials have raised as to why the relief sought — compliance with the law — in their opinion shouldn’t move forward.

Indeed, Brady gave the legislature first crack at redistricting, largesse that Judge Dick continues to offer. Up to a point.

H.B. 861 is sponsored by Rep. Randal Gaines D-LaPlace and is supported by the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, which he chairs. None of the members of Terrebonne’s local delegation took up the court’s invitation to introduce any legislation to respond to the federal court’s ruling.

The bill is similar to the structure of other courts that have similar sizes, including the 18th, 27th and 40th judicial districts. It creates five sections within the 32nd, one of which is a minority opportunity district, which a slightly larger percentage of black people of voting age.

Despite concerns that its adoption would have local judges challenge each other, there is no residency requirement for the five sections making that an issue. That is an topic has come up in discussions, with local judges in particular concerned that Judge Juan Pickett — Terrebonne’s first black judge — could be forced from his bench. none of the existing judges on the court, who are eligible to run in the next election for the court, have to compete against one another. Only three of the existing members of the court are eligible to run again since, under state law, two judges face mandatory retirement in 2020.

The five-section option — which the bill creates — is anathema to many local officials. Perhaps a split in the 32nd creating a single minority opportunity district rather than five could have worked. But there was no productive dialogue between officials and the plaintiffs or their counsel, which could have resulted in such a compromise.

There was stonewalling and avoidance.

What local lawmakers and officials fail to understand is that by continuing to oppose some form of change they add fuel to rhetoric about our community. Our state faces a billion-dollar deficit but our Attorney General is intent on fighting this decision, perhaps to the U.S. Supreme Court. That same Attorney General has yet to provide the involves to the public of how much a special law firm he has hired to litigate this case — one with strong ties to the Republican National Committee — is costing so far.

Polite and legally sustainable arguments were made throughout Louisiana’s deliberately slow and painful march toward accepting elements of the U.S. Civil Rights Act, and in particular, prior to that, toward compliance with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education.

Polite and highly sustainable arguments are being made now against a solution to the finding in Terrebonne NAACP vs. Jindal.

The U.S. Voting Rights Act applies to all fifty states and their various subdivisions.

It is still not too late for the local delegation to propose its own legislative remedy, possibly in concert with the Black Caucus, to ensure that Terrebonne Parish and Louisiana are in compliance without inviting a difficult and further polarizing fight through the courts.