There’s a binder on my desk nearly four inches thick and it contains memos, letters, reports and other items relating to a quest for better representation of minorities in the Terrebonne Parish judiciary over the past 20 years. Most of these items were evidence in the case of Terrebonne Parish Branch NAACP vs. Jindal, a lawsuit I have been covering and which is still before U.S. District Court Judge James Brady.
The judge has made his ruling as regards how judges in Terrebonne Parish are selected. The at-large process, in his esteemed opinion, violates Section 2 of the U.S. Voting Rights Act and the history indicates that provisions of the U.S. Constitution have been violated as well. The findings are significant, and weighty in their implications.
Each time the system has come close to being re-engineered in a way that would allow for greater minority representation on the bench, the paper breadcrumbs show, some other solution became apparent to someone, and support from people who play key roles in the system for planned change have been withdrawn.
The Louisiana Attorney General, a defendant in the case, is making an early appeal of the judge’s findings. On behalf of himself and Gov. John Bel Edwards – by many appearances a less than enthusiastic defendant – the Attorney General states through counsel that the judge’s request for solutions to the problem amount to an order that requires an emergency intervention by the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
Yet Judge Brady, at a pre-trial conference, made clear that he does not expect an actual resolution to any of this until after the next legislative session, which occurs in 2018. As the Governor’s executive counsel, Matthew Block, has told me, the new session will provide an opportunity for discussion of how the legislature may wish to address this, whether members of the local delegation, legislative leadership, or other members of that body. The NAACP is not pleased with the governor’s failure thus far to publicly divorce himself from the case. That they see him as Pontius Pilate with Block holding the hand-washing bowl, with the concept of a minority judicial sub-district in the dock, is a given.
Complicating matters is the unique position of Terrebonne Parish itself. Although affected by whatever decisions are made and agreed upon, the parish, as Parish President Dove has pointed out, could incur expense and other difficulties once a solution is found. So strong is Dove’s opinion on this that he had the parish attorney sit in on each session of court during the trial. Overall, the cost of the parish monitoring and attempting to oppose the case brought by the plaintiffs stands at around $60,000.
Whether one agrees that the parish should be spending this kind of money is one matter. But the parish administration and Parish Attorney Julius Hebert have nonetheless been transparent in their dealings on this. A public records request earlier this year for invoices submitted by Hebert was promptly filled. A more recent request – just last week to help total up the parish’s cost — was promptly filled as well. Attorney Attorney General Jeff Landry is another matter.
A request to his spokeswoman, Ruth Wisher, for information on how much new outside counsel is being paid, was met with a blanket denial. The case, she said, is still in litigation. Jason Torchinsky, an attorney from Virginia with a history of G.O.P. activism, is certainly not working for free. His signature appears on the appeals documents. Fulfilling a public records request for invoices or a contract could, a letter in response from a deputy attorney general states, could take 30 days. Certainly that’s longer than the three days such requests usually take to be filled, if state law is to be followed.
There is a chance that the Attorney General will still come through, and realize that the contract containing this information is not what lawmakers had in mind when they drafted the Public Records Act. But the 30-day warning hardly sounds reassuring. People on both sides of this issue have a right to know what it’s costing them.