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Law

Congressional map approved with 1 Black district was first cleared by GOP-hired law firm

 Sen. Sharon Hewitt (R-Slidell), who chairs the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee, presents her proposed congressional map to her colleagues during the state's redistricting session. Feb. 4, 2022.
Paul Braun
/
WRKF
Sen. Sharon Hewitt (R-Slidell), who chairs the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee, presents her proposed congressional map to her colleagues during the state's redistricting session. Feb. 4, 2022.

The Republican-controlled Louisiana Senate voted Tuesday to approve a new congressional map with a single majority-Black district, just minutes after the architect of that proposal revealed that she had discussed the legality of the map with an attorney hired by Republican legislative leaders without Democrats’ knowledge or consent.

The 27-12 vote fell along partisan lines with the Senate’s Republican supermajority pushing the measure through despite Democratic lawmakers' opposition and civil rights groups’ concerns that the configuration would violate the Voting Rights Act and underrepresent the third of the state’s population that is Black.

Hewitt (R-Slidell), chairwoman of the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a heated exchange with Sen. Karen Carter Peterson (D-New Orleans) that she consulted Kate McKnight, an attorney with BakerHostetler, about whether the GOP-backed proposal that cleared the legislature Tuesday complied with the Voting Rights Act. Hewitt added that McKnight spoke only to Hewitt because Hewitt was “chairing the committee and drafting the bills.”

Reporting by the Louisiana Illuminator published Saturday revealed that legislative leaders contracted with the law firm BakerHostetler — a firm with deep ties to the Republican party and an extensive history litigating on behalf of Republican legislatures in redistricting cases.

The BakerHostetler website lists Katherine McKnight as a partner and says she has experience working with legislatures in Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia when they faced lawsuits alleging partisan gerrymandering and violations of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

“It’s unusual,” Peterson said. “[I’m] just wanting to know why the lawyer, that’s been hired, that’s getting paid, never appeared in committee, never was made accessible to members who have a clear interest in making sure we get the districts right.”

Hewitt said that McKnight told her that the GOP-backed map would comply with the Voting Rights Act. At no point in the first week of the redistricting session or the months leading up to it had Hewitt mentioned her consultation with McKnight.

“So if she told you that the Voting Rights Act is being complied with on your bill, why won’t she tell me the same thing?” Peterson asked. “Why am I only finding out her name today? And why haven’t I had access to her?”

Following the exchange, Senate President Page Cortez said he and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder (R-Gonzales) contracted with a law firm that specializes in election law. He said the firm was hired for litigation purposes and that no public money had been paid to the firm because redistricting cases against the legislature haven’t gone to court.

“Redistricting falls under the purview of the legislature. The Speaker and I thought it important to engage a law firm who were experts in that field,” Cortez said.

Moments later, the Senate held a vote and passed the proposed congressional maps, which were later condemned by civil rights groups.

“The Louisiana Senate made a decision today to deny Black voters that equal opportunity to elect candidates of choice by enacting a map that continues to pack Black voters from New Orleans and Baton Rouge into just one majority Black district, even though we know it’s possible and easy to draw two districts,” said Michael Pernick, redistricting counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Pernick said it was “deeply disappointing” the Senate decided to pursue the GOP leadership’s map, despite the availability of several proposals that would have created two viable majority-Black congressional districts while creating an overall map that was more compact and had no deviation in district populations.

“That makes it clear that this isn’t about population equality, this isn’t about preserving parishes, this isn’t about keeping precincts all together — this is really about whether Black voters have an opportunity to elect their candidates of choice,” Pernick added.

Civil rights groups have argued that Louisiana would need an additional majority-Black congressional district and increased minority representation at every level of government to come into compliance with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits states from diluting the political power of racial minority populations when redrawing electoral maps.

Before approving the map crafted by GOP legislative leaders, the Senate rejected a set of amendments from Sen. Cleo Fields (D-Baton Rouge) that would have shifted district lines to make the 5th Congressional District a majority-Black district.

Earlier this session, Fields submitted three proposed congressional maps that would have created a second majority-Black district. All three were killed by the Republican-controlled Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee on Friday.

“I’m just giving this to show you that you can do it,” Fields said as he presented his sweeping amendment on the Senate floor. “I’m showing you that the Voting Rights Act demands it, that it is compact and precise and it complies with the law.”

The proposal would have created two districts where Black voters comprised 51.4% and 52.3% of the voting-age population.

During an exchange with Sen. Katrina Jackson (D-Monroe), Hewitt revealed she had asked BakerHostetler to find consultants that would produce a racially-polarized voting analysis that could assess the viability of a second majority-Black district that Republicans have repeatedly claimed could not exist.

Throughout the redistricting process, Hewitt and other GOP leaders have repeatedly said that such an analysis was not available and the legislature could not order a study on its own. But in her exchange with Jackson, Hewitt said that the request for the study was pending and that preliminary information was inconclusive.

“My question is if the law firm is still working, and they haven’t gotten to the point to give us enough information… are we a bit premature with drawing this congressional map without a minority district?” Jackson asked.

Pernick dismissed Hewitt’s claims as false, adding that his organization had conducted its own racially-polarized voting analysis that found two minority districts, as proposed by Fields and other Senate Democrats, would likely elect Black-preferred candidates by double-digit margins.

“There is no noise in that statistic,” Pernick said.

Copyright 2022 WRKF. To see more, visit WRKF.

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.

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