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GOP-sponsored Supreme Court map with 2nd majority-Black district advances in House committee

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Paul Braun
/
WRKF
Rep. Barry Ivey (R-Central) presents his proposed state Supreme Court map to the House and Governmental Affairs Committee. Ivey was the only Republican state lawmaker to introduce a redistricting proposal that would add a majority-minority district to the state's electoral maps. Feb. 14, 2022.

In a surprising vote, a Republican-controlled House committee advanced a proposed state Supreme Court map that increases the number of majority-Black districts for the state’s highest court.

It was the first time either of the Republican-controlled committees at the center of the redistricting process advanced legislation that would create new majority-minority districts in the state.

HB22 by Rep. Barry Ivey (R-Central) is the only redistricting proposal filed by a Republican state lawmaker this session that would increase minority representation in Louisiana. Ivey said giving Black voters a chance to fill a second seat on Louisiana’s highest court is just “common sense” in a state where one-third of the population is Black.

“It’d be embarrassing to have had this opportunity to address an issue, a legitimate issue, about the population, specifically at the Supreme Court where there are seven districts,” Ivey told lawmakers on the House and Governmental Affairs Committee on Monday.

That is essentially the same argument civil rights groups and Democratic state lawmakers have made for increasing minority representation not just on the state Supreme Court, but also in the state’s Congressional, state legislative, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and Public Service Commission districts during the state’s once-in-a-decade redistricting process.

But up to this point, Republican state lawmakers, who have commanding majorities in both the House and Senate, have voted down every proposal that would increase minority representation and thrown their weight behind measures that would keep the state’s electoral districts largely unchanged.

The leading Supreme Court proposal, SB15 by Sen. Sharon Hewitt (R-Slidell), would keep the same number of majority-Black districts as the existing map but would rebalance the populations of the districts to address population shifts in the nearly 25 years since the current map was adopted. Hewitt’s bill has already cleared a Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee and won approval from the full Senate on a party-line vote Monday afternoon.

Ivey’s map, like the proposal backed by GOP leaders, would bring all of the districts’ populations within 5% of each other. But unlike that proposal, Ivey’s map would create a second majority-Black district that stretches from Baton Rouge, up the state’s eastern border to Monroe and across the northern border to Shreveport.

Some Republicans on the committee expressed deep reservations about a map that would group voters as far southeast as East Feliciana with voters in Caddo Parish on the opposite side of the state. They said the configuration forces a second-majority Black district into existence even though it does not fit the geography and cultural communities of interest of the state.

“I agree with some of the other reps that East Feliciana doesn’t really have anything in common with Caddo Parish,” Rep. Les Farnum (R-Sulphur) said.

Ivey defended the district’s unorthodox shape by saying it was the best way to include enough Black voters while minimizing changes to the existing districts.

“The majority-minority community of interest is not disrupting any of the other communities of interest regionally,” Ivey said, pointing out that his map was more compact and more reflective of the state’s racial demographics than Hewitt’s proposal. “I believe that it is the best balancing act that we have.”

Speaker Pro Tem Tanner Magee (R-Houma) said the proposal deserved a hearing from the full House of Representatives.

“The only way we can keep having this conversation is to get your map out today and move it to the floor,” Magee said. “We haven’t done the Supreme Court in a really long time. I know everybody could pick a flaw if they wanted to, but we’re not going to get perfection in this business.”

The committee advanced Ivey’s proposal with Ivey, Magee, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-Pineville) and Rep. Malinda White (I-Bogalousa) joining the committee’s six Democrats to send the bill to the full House of Representatives.

State Supreme Court maps must be approved by a two-thirds vote in both chambers to win final passage — a much higher bar than the simple majority required for all other redistricting proposals.

State law does not require lawmakers to redraw the state’s Supreme Court districts during the three-week redistricting session that ends Feb. 20, and the requirements that any new map must fulfill are significantly different from the others currently under consideration.

The ideal district size for the state Supreme Court is roughly 665,000 people.

But the current map, which was drawn in 1997 using data from the 1990 census, has wide variations in district size. The Baton Rouge-based 5th District has a population of more than 838,000, while the New Orleans-based 7th District — the only majority-Black district under the current configuration — has a population of just under 477,000.

Judicial maps are not bound by the “one person, one vote” principle that requires all districts to have equal populations. That gives lawmakers more flexibility in creating districts but has also contributed to extreme malapportionment, making the task more daunting.

Still, Ivey argued that it is time state lawmakers waded back into the thorny political issue.

“Doing nothing here is a vote for the status quo,” Ivey said. “Look at what we currently have and ask yourself, ‘Is this better than what we currently have?’”

Louisiana is currently locked in a prolonged legal battle with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and other civil rights groups over the constitutionality of the state’s Supreme Court districts. Ivey said it would be better for lawmakers to redraw those districts than have a federal court do it for them.

Over his two-and-a-half terms in the state House of Representatives, Ivey has often found himself at odds with his fellow Republicans to sponsor technically, and politically, complicated legislation.

As a member of the House committee that handles all redistricting bills, Ivey crossed party lines twice last week to vote with Democratic lawmakers to advance congressional and state House map proposals that included new majority-Black districts to the full House for a floor vote. Those votes failed.

HB22 could be considered on the House floor as early as Tuesday. Time is running short for the measure to work its way through the legislature and possibly win final passage because the redistricting session must end at 6 p.m. Saturday.

If Ivey’s map succeeds on the House floor, it would still have to win the approval of the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee and full Senate before that deadline.

In an interview after the vote, Ivey said he was glad the committee gave him the opportunity to debate his bill before the full House of Representatives but acknowledged the longshot odds of his map making it to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ desk.

“It’s 105 people, the perspectives are going to be diverse, and so to get a two-thirds consensus is by no means a simple thing,” Ivey said. “If I can do that, great. If I can’t, then I will have done the best I could on this effort.”

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.