Letter deserved an answer

It is an unfortunate truth that throughout his term of office to date, Parish President Gordon Dove has taken a combative rather than more circumspect approach to the question now under consideration by U.S. District Judge James Brady, as to whether Louisiana’s use of at-large voting to elect its five district court judges violates Section 2 of the U.S. Voting Rights Act.

I say this because not once during any statements he has ever made on the matter has the Parish President addressed the specific question with which the court is concerned. He has made clear his view that one of the available cures, should the judge find the state in violation, would cause disruption and financial cost to the parish. However well-intentioned or well-founded his thoughts on the matter may be, it is akin to someone who denies the potential of cancer because of the effects radiation or chemotherapy might have on the body. He has yet to defend the current system of choosing judges by stating the law is not being violated. It gives the appearance that his quarrel is therefore with the law itself.

If you take this response back to a different point in time, it is worthy to note that the illegal nature of having separate school systems for blacks and whites necessitated a cure that was quite onerous in terms of financial cost, but unquestionably necessary.

It is the stated concern about costs that prompted Dove to assign Julius Hebert, the parish attorney, to sit in court each day during the 8-day trial in Brady’s Baton Rouge courtroom. Overall – as this newspaper has reported – Hebert’s fees topped $43,000. That wasn’t just for babysitting the trial, but other legal work related to the case as well. Dove finds the potential of a new way of electing judges so distasteful that he had assigned Hebert to file for the parish to intervene – essentially to voluntarily become a defendant in the lawsuit – a move that experts on Section 2 law with no connection to this case have said is in their experience unprecedented.

While attorneys for the actually involved parties in this case were busy writing up their final briefs for Judge Brady, Terrebonne NAACP President Jerome Boykin did some writing of his own, a two-page letter addressed not to Dove but to Parish Council Chairman Dirk Guidry, with copies to all Parish Council members, accusing them of abdicating their responsibilities by allowing Dove to tilt at federal windmills unchecked and without comment.

Council members never gave Boykin the courtesy of a reply, nor any public acknowledgment that his letter existed. Boykin’s questions were valid and mostly courteous. One council member – Gerald Michel – did give detailed answers to questions posed by Karl Gommel of this newspaper.

While he would not himself have sent an attorney to monitor the proceedings most likely, Michel did say that the dollar amount of overall attorney fees are reflected within the budget the council approves and therefore – for now – defensible.

“Since I am not in the middle of such debates, I will defer to administration as long as they stay within the budget,” Michel said, explaining that he wished to avoid “micromanagement.”

Michel’s answer, while likely not the one Boykin was looking for, is also defensible to a point.

Boykin, along with the other plaintiffs in the case and the many people from Terrebonne Parish who showed up to view the last day of proceedings in Baton Rouge, were entitled to an answer from someone either through direct correspondence or by someone addressing the letter in the council’s chambers during a public meeting. There is nothing wrong with the idea of a legislative body questioning the executive, or addressing questions regarding the decisions of the executive. The plaintiffs and their supporters are after all not adversaries of the parish, as they never sued the parish.

All of this supports a point earlier raised, which is that Terrebonne Parish and the State of Louisiana have not proved so much that they oppose the plaintiffs in this case but that they oppose the law that Congress made in 1965, signed by President Lyndon Johnson, and which underwent a key amendment in 1982 signed by President Ronald Reagan.

Similar opposition to law led to Louisiana being on the wrong side of history in 1865, and again when schools were desegregated, then yet again when the Civil Rights Act was passed. Judge Brady’s decision is expected to be handed down in August.

That decision will tell if Louisiana is on the wrong side of history yet again, and by extension Terrebonne Parish. •

John DeSantis