A federal court has ruled that Louisiana’s method of electing judges to a parish court intentionally discriminates against blacks.
Terrebonne Parish has never elected a black judge in a competitive race, even though one in five residents are black. In fact, less than a decade ago, it re-elected a white judge who had been suspended for wearing black-face as part of a racist parody Halloween costume.
On Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge James Brady ruled in favor of the NAACP plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the election system for the 32nd Judicial District Court (JDC), a state court that exercises jurisdiction over Terrebonne Parish. Brady found that the system was designed “to limit the opportunity of black individuals to participate meaningfully and effectively in the political process to elect judges of their choice.”
Since 1968, Louisiana has used an “at-large” system to elect judges to the 32nd JDC. That means that all five judges on the court are elected by the parish as a whole, rather than splitting the parish into five geographical districts. Because white voters in the south rarely support black candidates, the at-large system has made it all but impossible for black judicial candidates to be elected.
Many southern jurisdictions switched to at-large systems after the 1965 Voting Rights Act in order to hold off black political power, and these systems have often been the targets of lawsuits under the law.
Efforts to create a district-based system had been rejected in recent years by the state legislature. The lawsuit named Gov. Bobby Jindal (pictured), and the state’s attorney general, as defendants, claiming that they ignored their responsibility, along with the legislature, to fix the problem.
In his ruling, Judge Brady also recounted an episode that seems to illustrate how little clout Terrebonne’s black voters have had under the at-large system:
In October 2003, Judge [Timothy] Ellender and his wife attended a Halloween party at a restaurant in Terrebonne. Judge Ellender was dressed as a prisoner, wearing an orange jumpsuit, handcuffs, a black afro wig, and black makeup on his face, which he decided to apply after his costume did not “generate the laughs [he] had expected.” The Louisiana Supreme Court suspended Judge Ellender for one year and one day without pay, with six months deferred, for this misconduct. The Supreme Court found that while the Judge “did not intend to offer an affront to the African-American community…[n]onetheless, his behavior exhibit[ed] his failure to appreciate the effects of his actions on the community as a whole.” Judge Ellender was reelected without opposition in 2008 to a six year term on the 32nd JDC.
Brady did not spell out a specific remedy, writing that the court will hold a status conference to discuss how to fix the problem. But it appears all but certain that the state will be required to create a judicial district that’s majority black, giving black voters a legitimate chance to elect a candidate that they support.
In addition, Leah Aden, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which argued the case, said plaintiffs would ask Brady to put Louisiana back under the federal pre-clearance system for its voting laws, though it’s by no means clear that the court will do so. That pre-clearance system was neutered by the Supreme Court in 2013, but jurisdictions found to have intentionally discriminated can be put back under it.
“Having a voice in the political process is a central tenet of our democracy,” said Aden in a statement. “This important decision correctly recognizes the intentionally discriminatory nature of the at-large voting scheme for the 32nd JDC in Terrebonne and ensures that every vote matters.”