A bold move forward for Dove, council

Almost two months ago Parish President Gordon Dove sat in a chair at the Houma Municipal Auditorium on West Tunnel Boulevard during the NAACP’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. observance, and watched a video produced by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Its topic was the attempt by the NAACP – a matter now being litigated in a federal court – to have established a minority district for election of a single division’s district court judge, one bench out of the parish’s total of five.

The case is based on the belief that the at-large method of selecting judges here violates the federal Voting Rights Act. The trial judge, the Hon. J. James Brady, has set a March 2017 trial date.

The explanatory video charted the course of voting rights denied black people subsequent to emancipation, in Louisiana and Terrebonne Parish. It also called attention to the various scenarios that in the minds of the plaintiffs make it impossible for African-Americans, voting as a bloc, to ever elect a judicial candidate of their choice.

Such vote dilution is a baseline element of the Voting Rights Act. Discriminatory intent is not the question in such cases, at least in recent years. It is the outcome which matters, so far as the courts are concerned. We don’t know if the photographs that relate to the civil rights struggle, or the headlines of newspaper articles indicating that a white judge in Terrebonne had dressed in blackface and a prison jumpsuit on Halloween and was still re-elected, were what caught the eyes of Dove, who paid rapt attention to the video. But we do know that the suggestion contained in the litigation that Terrebonne’s five divisions of court each have their own voting districts, with one being a minority sub-district, did not sit well with the parish president.

Since then Dove – without the approval of the Parish Council – has filed court papers on behalf of the parish to enter the suit as an intervenor. The suit was brought against Louisiana’s governor and attorney general, not the parish. But Dove wanted to enter the fray nonetheless. Judge Brady has yet to rule on that petition, an opposing motion to which was filed Monday in federal court.

The move by Dove, which may have violated the Terrebonne Parish Home Rule Charter, could result in an untold legal fee liability for the parish, both in terms of its own attorneys and awards of fees for the plaintiff attorneys if his petition is granted. But it might not, if the matter is settled before things go too far.

Prior cases indicate that the courts have routinely declared that at-large voting schemes – including those used in judicial elections – violate Section Two of the Voting Rights Act. Barring a total re-interpretation of the law by the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals or ultimately the highest court of the land, the state would likely not prevail.

Two Terrebonne Parish council members and two school board members, all of whom serve minority districts that comply with Voting Rights Act mandates, will be meeting on March 28 with representatives of the attorney general and the governor, to present a plan that could result in a settlement. Parish President Dove, who oppose a legislative cure to the problem, has stated that he could support a settlement of the matter if certain conditions are met, among them creation of only one sub-district with the other four judges elected at large, and support of the community as a whole.

Since his initial legal move, Dove has taken a reasonable and well-thought approach to the matter, having expressed his desire to aid a settlement, rather than prolong the battle. With his decision, a seat at the table will be granted to the parish. Petitioning to enter as an intervenor was not necessary for this to occur. The state has always been willing to listen to the parish’s desire, indeed has wished to do so.

That having been said, this latest move by Gordon Dove and council members to seek ways to comply with federal law rather than fight it, are applauded by us, and should be by residents of Terrebonne and the business community, as well as our judges. Mr. Dove may have had a false start, but ultimately is involved in furthering a solution rather than further complicating the problem. •