If all goes as planned, the Terrebonne Parish NAACP case alleging violation of the U.S. Voting Rights Act in connection with how judges are elected in Terrebonne Parish should come up for trial before U.S. District Judge James Brady in less than three months, with a trial date of March 3 currently scheduled.
Broken down into its simplest parts, the case alleges that the at-large system of electing judges to the Terrebonne bench violate Section 2 of the act because it dilutes or simply drowns the votes of black people in a sea of parish-wide white votes. According to the theory posted by the plaintiffs, selection of judges for five separate divisions of court should take place fthrough parish-wide elections. The NAACP seeks to have at least one minority sub-district carved out of the parish, whose lines would create a more level playing field of black vs. white voters. The purpose would be to allow the collective will of black voters to make a substantive difference on at least one of the parish’s five benches.
The goal, if it is accomplished, will not be a guarantee that a black judge is elected. Such an asset is already seated in the 32nd Judicial District. Judge Juan Pickett ran unopposed for the seat vacated upon retirement by Judge Timothy Ellender.
Rather, the stated goal is for what cohesive community will as may exist among black Terrebonne citizens who live within a special district to have their own voices heard in the process, and guarantee that one of the five judges will be whomever that community believes best represents their view of who should be a part of the workings of the judicial district.
Parish President Gordon Dove – who as a state legislator led a revolt against legislation that would have cured Terrebonne’s diversity problem – has stated that he may be amendable to some sort of negotiation between the NAACP and the state. For that to occur, Dove has said, organizations like the Houma-Terrebonne Chamber of Commerce would have to back any plan that emerged.
At first glance, that sounds like a good idea. A community’s Chamber of Commerce, presumably, is in a position to know the true nature of local diversity, and perhaps how best, in important institutions like the local judiciary, a true hearing of the community’s voices overall might be engineered. What must be mentioned, however, is that in the final analysis neither the parish president nor the Chamber of Commerce is involved in this litigation. The judicial district in question is a creature of state, not local government, and this is why the governor and the attorney general are defendants, and not Terrebonne
A new book has been published by the Chamber of Commerce, a slick and glossy coffee-table type book that retails for $40. A close examination of the book “Terrebonne Parish: Stories of the Good Earth” shows how wrong presumptions can be.
The book is divided into two sections, the first dealing with actual history, the second with current affairs which includes profiles of existing businesses that have had a marked impact on Terrebonne Parish’s development.
Neither is truly reflective of the parish’s diversity. Indeed, were it not for slavery and school desegregation (note my choice of word there – not the existence of segregation itself, but the more “positive” result of a reversal that was agonizingly long) the presence of black people in Terrebonne Parish might have been presumed nil by a casual reader from some other place. In the latter section of the book not a single black-owned business is featured or mentioned. I have no doubt that it was not the Chamber’s intention to offend, or to diminish the contribution of any group of people to our history or economy. It is also true that greater participation by black owned businesses in the affairs of the Chamber and other civic groups would go a long way toward closing whatever gaps may exist.
But the physical appearance of the book speaks for itself, and in addition to the legal technicalities supports the contention that the Chamber of Commerce as well as the parish government are not parties from whom any fair and reasonable determination of whether the method of election for the 32nd Judicial District is consistent with federal law.