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‘It’s basically a race’: 3 courts consider future of Louisiana’s congressional districts

Louisiana State Capitol in April 2022.
Kezia Setyawan
Louisiana State Capitol in April 2022.

This story was originally published by the Louisiana Illuminator.

The legal battle to determine the boundaries of Louisiana’s congressional districts is now taking place simultaneously at all three levels of the federal judiciary, and the parties involved are fighting on multiple fronts. The decision comes down to whether Black voters will hold a majority in one or two of the state’s six U.S. House districts.

As a federal judge in Baton Rouge prepares to draw her version of a map that will feature two majority-Black districts, an appellate court panel contemplates her ruling to reject a single-Black district map that Republican lawmakers approved in February. Meanwhile, GOP state leaders have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the district judge’s original decision.

The lawsuit, brought by a group of Black Louisiana voters, is filed against the state’s top election official, Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin. Louisiana Senate President Page Cortez, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and Attorney General Jeff Landry are co-defendants and fellow Republicans.

“It’s basically a race to see who rules first,” said Jared Evans, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney who represents plaintiffs in the case. “Our side wants the Middle District to draw a map ASAP and have that become law first. The other side wants SCOTUS to rule ASAP and grant the stay.”

New map by June 29

The most immediate ruling could come June 29 from federal Judge Shelly Dick of the U.S. Middle District Court of Louisiana. Evans said the court will adopt a map that features a second majority-minority district, which the judge, in her June 6 ruling, identified as the appropriate remedy in the case.

Dick gave the Louisiana Legislature the opportunity to redraw the map approved in February. Their second special redistricting session of the year ended Saturday when the lone bill that made it out of committee died on the Senate floor.

It was a session that the Republican-dominated Legislature held unwillingly after Dick, an appointee of President Barack Obama, ruled that the U.S. House districts lawmakers approved in February had been racially gerrymandered. That map features just one majority-Black district and five majority-white districts despite the state having nearly one-third Black population.

Lawmakers had until this past Monday to submit a map with a second majority-Black district or else the judge would enact a map of her choosing. Dick has scheduled a June 29 hearing where the plaintiffs are expecting her to enact the map that same day.

The timing of the upcoming June 29 ruling may be just as important as what the ruling says. Absent any higher court rulings that say otherwise, the district court’s map would immediately become law in Louisiana, and the secretary of state will be legally bound to immediately begin planning the 2022 elections with respect to the new districts, Evans said.

“We fully expect to have a map in place by the end of this month, and the [secretary of state] will be obligated to start implementing it right away,” Evans said. “He can’t say he’s waiting on the 5th Circuit or SCOTUS to rule.”

Evans said his organization will prepare for every scenario, such as if Ardoin purposely tries to slow-walk the new election plan.

Supreme Court stay

Having lost the district court trial and an early motion in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, the Republican defendants are counting on a favorable ruling from the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, but they need it before next Wednesday.

Peter Robins-Brown, policy director for Louisiana Progress, said the upcoming June 29 ruling can set into motion other events that would generally make a reversal more difficult such as the new election plan and new candidate qualifications.

Although the Republicans appealed the district court’s initial ruling on June 6, the 5th Circuit is not going to hear the case until July 8. An appellate panel denied the defendants’ request for a lengthier stay of Dick’s ruling, which required the special session be held.

On Friday, while lawmakers made little progress trying to create a new map with a second majority-Black district, the defendants appealed the 5th Circuit’s refusal to stay the district court ruling, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to block Judge Dick’s ruling.

Evans said he does not expect the justices to rule on the stay motion before Dick enacts a map, noting that the Supreme Court could have granted a temporary administrative stay immediately but did not.

However, the Supreme Court has a very recent history of doing exactly what Louisiana’s Republican leaders are asking. In a 5-4 ruling in February, justices blocked a lower court from redrawing Alabama’s congressional map that it found was racially gerrymandered. Similar to the current case in Louisiana, a federal judge in Alabama ordered a new map featuring a second majority-Black district. The Supreme Court stayed the order, reasoning that there was too little time to implement a new map before the primary elections in May.

The stay of the Alabama case is temporary until the appeal can fully be heard on its merits at a later date. However, the Supreme Court’s decision allowed Alabama’s Republican leaders to keep their preferred map in place for its 2022 congressional midterms.

Although Louisiana has one of the latest congressional election schedules in the country with a Nov. 8 open primary and Dec. 10 runoff election, candidate qualifying deadlines are in July. It could take several days or weeks for the 5th Circuit to decide on the merits of the case following its July 8 hearing.

If a new map is in place before a Supreme Court stay or a 5th Circuit ruling, Evans pointed out, the defendants’ “too little time” argument begins working against them, as reverting back to the original map would leave too little time to reorganize the election.

The defendants are also asking the Supreme Court to consolidate Louisiana’s case with Alabama’s. While the two cases share similarities, Evans pointed out some key differences.

Alabama had a true primary election four months away from the Supreme Court ruling, while Louisiana has a Nov. 8 open primary in which all candidates run, followed by Dec. 10 runoffs if necessary. Alabama has seven districts and a 26.8% Black population, while Louisiana has six districts and a 32.8% Black population.

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