House Bill Would Pave Way for Single District Judicial Elections in Terrebonne Parish, Strengthen Power of Black Votes

State Rep. Randal Gaines of LaPlace, chairman of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, did what no elected member of the Louisiana Legislature from Terrebonne Parish would—introduce a bill this session to change the way judges are elected in the 32nd Judicial District, which encompasses Terrebonne Parish, to provide Terrebonne’s Black voters an equal opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice to the 32nd Judicial District.

House Bill 861 would create five single-member districts for the purpose of electing the five judges of the 32nd JDC. The bill has been deferred to the House and Governmental Affairs Committee on April 4. Like other judicial districts across the state, judges in Terrebonne are elected in parish-wide races. But not one Black person has been elected to the bench in the history of the court, according to plaintiffs in a lawsuit, because the parish-wide race dilutes Black votes.

The bill is currently pending in the House and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“If HB 861 is not successful, we expect to return to court this June to ask the court to order a remedy for the ongoing voting rights violation in Terrebonne,” Leah Aden, senior counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said in a recent statement. Critics of the current method have noted that racial discrimination is so enshrined in the at-large election process in Terrebonne that a white judge was reelected without opposition to the 32nd judicial district in 2008 after the Louisiana Supreme Court suspended him four years earlier for wearing blackface, an orange prison jumpsuit, and handcuffs as a Halloween costume.

After years of seeking relief at the state level to no avail, a group of Terrebonne residents filed a federal lawsuit. An eight-week bench ended trial last summer when a federal court ruled in late August 2017 that Louisiana’s voting method for 32nd Judicial District Court was unconstitutional and violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act because it dilutes Black voting strength and that it has been intentionally maintained it for that purpose.

The NAACP LDF released a statement following that August ruling that said, in part:

“The court determined that Louisiana’s use of at-large voting for electing five members to the 32nd Judicial District Court (32nd JDC), the state court encompassing Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the U.S. Constitution. This decision paves the way for an end to a nearly 50-year old discriminatory voting practice and for Black voters to have the equal opportunity—for the first time since that state court was created in 1968—to elect their preferred judicial candidates.

In a detailed and meticulous 91-page-ruling, the federal district court “found a strong case of vote dilution.” The court observed that “no Black candidate who has faced opposition in Terrebonne has been elected to an at-large position, and Black candidates have received incredibly minimal support from White voters, a pattern which has been consistent over the course of more than twenty years.”

Still, that victory did not come without challenge.

State Attorney General Jeff Landry and Governor John Bel Edwards appealed the ruling, but the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the appeal last November.

In the August ruling, the court also indicated that it was likely to defer to the Louisiana Legislature “to initially propose a remedy.” When no elected representative from Terrebonne stepped up to offer a bill, Gaines did.

In a state released earlier this week in response to Gaines’ introduction of HB 861, the NAACP LDF released a statement that read, in part, “Plaintiffs’ counsel applauds Rep. Gaines for proposing a remedy to the constitutional and statutory violations in Terrebonne, even though he represents another part of Louisiana. Shamefully, not one member of Terrebonne’s local legislative delegation acted in response to the federal court’s ruling and invitation to correct the wrongs, despite those legislators’ unsubstantiated refrain that they serve all voters in Terrebonne. That very pattern . . . is the type of obstruction that led the federal court to find that Louisiana violated Black voters’ statutory and constitutional right to vote in the first place. However, Black voters in Terrebonne and the plaintiffs who brought a challenge to the status quo in Terrebonne are optimistic that that pattern will be broken—either via legislative support for this bill or the federal court stepping in to ensure equal voting rights.”

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