The letter of the law

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Last week, judges from the 32nd Judicial District and the District Attorney of Terrebonne Parish appeared in a federal courtroom, one at a time, to answer questions from attorneys about the potential for a minority sub-district to be in the mix when Terrebonne’s citizens choose future judges.

I have sat in the courtrooms of most, watching as they administered justice, and look forward to doing so in the future. The level of work that gets done, the dedication to the law and to service of the people in this parish that the judges we have elected display is admirable. I have also had the pleasure of conversing with some, and those discussions have only strengthened the opinions I have formed while being a mere professional observer.

It was therefore no surprise for me that the Hon. David Arceneaux, a lover of the law who is well-versed and has lived a professional life that is proof of his dedication, gave perfectly honest answers while being cross-examined by another man I admire, civil rights attorney Ronald Wilson, one of the team representing the Terrebonne Parish NAACP.

As reported, Judge Arceneaux did not hesitate when asked why he opposes a minority sub-district in Terrebonne Parish. His answer was rooted in personal philosophy, something he noted early on in the cross-examination. In his opinion, a minority sub-district, by definition drawn according to racial considerations, institutionalizes racism. Therefore, although minority sub-districts exist elsewhere in Louisiana, and not only in the district courts but in the appellate courts, the practice is not something he wishes to see in Terrebonne Parish.

Respectfully, the judge and I must disagree on the mention of institutional racism in this context, and for many reasons.

But Judge Arceneaux’s testimony starkly revealed the problem with Terrebonne’s resistance to this solution, a resistance championed aggressively by Parish President Gordon Dove.

It should be noted here as well that when the other judges completed their testimony, attorneys representing Attorney General Jeff Landry – well known as a Dove compatriot – and Gov. John Bel Edwards, who inherited his status as a defendant from the former governor, Bobby Jindal – made a telling remark. The testimony of the judges was important, they noted, because it gave the locality an opportunity to have their voices heard.

U.S. District Judge James Brady, who is hearing the case, appeared to agree with a statement from the NAACP lawyers, that the opinion of the local folks on the matter is not what is being gauged at the trial.

The question is a simple one, which is whether what is currently done in Terrebonne Parish violates Section 2 of the U.S. Voting Rights Act. Finding a way to the answer is rather complex, there are specificities in the law, and it will be Judge Brady’s task ultimately to decide within those parameters.

Toward that end, the judge was clearly in agreement with something else the NAACP lawyers pointed out. Carving the 32nd Judicial District into five sub-districts to achieve an end consistent with the law – or not doing so – is not what is on the table in this Baton Rouge courtroom.

Whether such a “Balkanization” of Terrebonne Parish, to coin words offered by Dove, is going to be the cure, is a question that can come up only after the decision is made by the trier of fact on the matter of applicable law.

That the parish’s judges have been placed in the position of having to support the arguments offered by attorneys for the state is not their fault. Neither is it the fault of State District Judge Juan Pickett that his status as Terrebonne’s first black judge has become a football in the courtroom.

We won’t know what the Judge Brady’s decision is any time soon. More testimony will be taken in late April, from experts being presented by the state. Maybe then we will know precisely why the state is being so dogged about this matter, which should not be a question of opinion, but rather a question solely rooted in the law.