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Louisiana lawmakers end court-ordered redistricting session without passing new congressional map

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Paul Braun
/
WRKF
Members of the Legislative Black Caucus huddle on the floor of the Louisiana Senate during the state's court-ordered second redistricting session. June 15, 2022.

Louisiana lawmakers cut short their court-ordered congressional redistricting session Saturday after refusing to create the second majority-Black district mandated by a U.S. District Court judge last week.

With Saturday’s action, state lawmakers have ceded the responsibility of drawing the congressional districts the state will use for the next ten years to the courts.

On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Shelly Dick ordered the parties in the state’s redistricting case to submit proposed maps with a second majority-Black congressional district by June 22 and has set a hearing date for the issue a week later.

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and Senate President Page Cortez went to federal court Thursday to ask for more time to comply with the judge’s order, but in the end they pulled the plug on the special session after four days.

Civil rights groups and Democratic state lawmakers have argued that Louisiana, with its 33% Black population, need two majority-Black Congressional districts to comply with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

After a week long hearing last month, Judge Dick agreed and struck down the map the status-quo congressional map on June 6 and ordered the legislature to pass a new redistricting plan with two majority-Black congressional districts by June 20.

Judge Dick’sdecision will be appealed to a higher court. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear arguments in the case July 8 and on Friday the state asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene in the case and reinstate the congressional map the district court struck down earlier this month.

At the halfway point of the session Friday night, SB3 by Sen. Rick Ward (R-Port Allen) was the only congressional map proposal to advance through committee. After two hours of debate on the Senate floor, Ward pulled the doomed bill from consideration before a final vote.

Ward’s map stood little chance of passing the state’s Republican-controlled legislature.

It would have created two majority-Black districts but did so by the narrowest margins of any proposal submitted in the redistricting process thus far. Unlike the other proposals with two majority-Black districts, Ward’s map converted the 6th congressional district, currently held by Republican Garret Graves, a four-term incumbent. Other attempts to create a new majority-Black district focused on the 5th Congressional District, currently held by congressional newcomer Julia Letlow.

The configuration would also have had multiple members of the current congressional delegation residing in the same districts.

Jared Evans, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said the map would, in theory, satisfy Judge Shelly Dick’s order, but he doubted the seriousness of the proposal.

“A serious map wouldn’t split the Senate President’s home parish,” Evans said. “A serious map wouldn’t have put two incumbents — Mike Johnsons and Julia Letlow — in the same district and Garret Graves and Clay Higgins in the same district.”

Ward’s proposal narrowly escaped the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee at the request of Senate President Page Cortez, who still expressed misgivings about the original boundaries proposed.

“I’m not saying that I could vote for it on final passage, but I also understand that if this bill gets deferred in committee there is no instrument in the Senate,” Cortez said Thursday. “Even if the bill were amended to where they could get 20 votes in the Senate, there is no guarantee that the House would pass it or even hear it.”

“We find ourselves in a little bit of a quagmire,” he added.

Cortez’s request only delayed the inevitable failure of Ward’s bill and the end of the session by one day.

Ward, a moderate who is resigning from the Senate later this year, acknowledged the flaws of his map during debate on the Senate floor Saturday.

His fellow senators filed half a dozen conflicting amendments that would dramatically reshape the map.

After an hour long break to consider the amendments, the Senate returned and Ward informed his colleagues that he was pulling the bill from consideration.

“We can’t find anything collectively that can get us to 20 votes,” Ward said. “Everytime you satisfy four people you lose four people…It's a difficult task and quite frankly I think the courts are going to have to decide.”

After standing by for most of the day, the House convened just long enough after the Senate action for both chambers to officially end the special session.

Several members of the Legislative Black Caucus requested an opportunity to speak on the House floor. Only one — Rep. Edmond Jordan (D-Baton Rouge) — was given the opportunity to speak.

The House of Representatives cut its live video feed as Jordan, flanked by his Democratic colleagues, began to speak.

Jordan admonished House Speaker Clay Schexnayder for stifling debate during the shortened four-day special session and accused him and the state's Republican legislative leaders of not taking the court order and the session seriously.

“This is insane,” Jordan said. “Historically speaking, we as African Americans have always had to rely on Federal intervention just to have equal rights… This is not Jim Crow. We’re supposed to be different. We’re supposed to be better than this.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards expressed his disappointment in the legislature’s failure to comply with the court order and pass a map with two majority-Black districts.

“Sadly, the Legislature has now twice rejected just such a map,” Edwards said. “As you’ve heard me say before, this is a matter of simple math, basic fairness, and the rule of law.”

Edwards called out the “irony of all ironies” that the legislature’s refusal to comply came on Juneteenth, the annual celebration of when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas learned of their freedom.

“It is clear that our African-American brothers and sisters are still fighting for fair representation,” Edwards said.

Jared Evans of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund made the comparison more bluntly.

“We heard from the Black Caucus, we heard from Black community leaders over and over again asking for a fair piece of the pie and an opportunity to elect our candidate of choice in two districts,” Evans said. “And what you heard from the [Republican] majority was, ‘No, be grateful for what master has already given you.’”