By Wes Muller, Louisiana Illuminator
Louisiana lawmakers will convene Wednesday for what amounts to a court-ordered special session to redraw the state’s congressional districts. But Republican lawmakers, who adopted the map in February that retained just one majority-Black district, could well stick with that composition and let the case progress — perhaps up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices have already shot down one state’s attempt to increase its minority representation in Congress.
The case of Robinson v. Ardoin began when a group of Black Louisiana voters sued the Legislature’s GOP leaders and Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin to stop the state’s new map of congressional districts from taking effect.
Citing the defendants’ poor legal strategy, a federal appeals panel in New Orleans lifted its stay Sunday of the lower court’s ruling that found the map was racially gerrymandered. A revised version of the state’s six U.S. House districts is due to the federal court June 20 while appellate judges will likely not decide the merits of the case until after the Legislature’s five-day special session begins.
In the district court ruling issued June 6, Judge Shelly Dick ordered lawmakers to redraw the map to create two majority-Black districts no later than June 20 to allow sufficient time for the state to organize the 2022 mid-term election. To facilitate this, Gov. John Bel Edwards called lawmakers back into session beginning Wednesday.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a temporary stay of the ruling last Thursday but then lifted it Sunday after a three-judge administrative panel weighed arguments from both sides and found the defendant Republicans unlikely to succeed on the merits of their appeal. According to the 5th Circuit’s order issued Sunday, the next available merits panel is scheduled to hear cases the week of July 4, though the case is being expedited and could be heard before that date.
But by that time, the district court might have already drawn a new map and forced it upon the Legislature if lawmakers fail to adopt one that has two majority-Black districts, said NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney Jared Evans, who filed the lawsuit.
“The district court said it would start the process of drawing a map if they haven’t passed one by the 20th,” Evans said. “So by the time the 5th Circuit rules, we could very well already have one.”
In its latest ruling, the appeals panel that lifted the temporary stay noted the defendants, which include Ardoin, GOP lawmakers and Attorney General Jeff Landry, presented a poor legal strategy. At the same time, the judges pointed out a weakness on the plaintiffs’ side and essentially laid out a roadmap for how the defendants should have attacked it.
The judges wrote that “though the plaintiffs’ arguments and the district court’s analysis are not without weaknesses, the defendants have not met their burden of making a ‘strong showing’ of likely success on the merits.”
One area of weakness on the side of the plaintiffs, the appellate panel noted, concerns the redistricting analysis of compactness for one of the proposed majority-Black districts. However, the judges wrote that the defendants failed to challenge the compactness requirement and instead “put all their eggs in the basket of racial gerrymandering.”
“That tactical choice has consequences,” they wrote. “It leaves the plaintiffs’ evidence of compactness largely uncontested. And based on that evidence, we hold that the defendants have not shown that they are likely to succeed on the merits.”
In another argument made in their appeal, the Republican lawmakers complained that Judge Dick’s ruling gives them insufficient time to enact a remedial map, however, the appeals panel pointed out the defendants did not ask the court for a deadline extension — which Dick would have “favorably” considered. The lawmakers eventually did file a motion requesting the extension, and the parties are scheduled to appear in district court on the matter Thursday.
On the eve of the special session, there’s a question of whether Republican lawmakers, who make up the majority in the Legislature, have any interest in attempting to approve a map with two majority-Black districts.
“I think you’re gonna have two competing maps — one the Legislature is going to propose and one the courts are going to draw,” Sen. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, said Monday. “Ultimately the 5th Circuit is going to decide or the Supreme Court, so I don’t see the maps coming out differently from Legislature than they already are.”
In response to the 5th Circuit’s lifting of the stay, Gov. Edwards said Monday that the case is one of “simple math.”
“This has always been a straightforward case of simple math, simple fairness and the rule of law,” the governor said. “According to the U.S. Census, African Americans make up nearly one-third of the voting population in Louisiana, and therefore, we should have a second majority minority congressional district.”
Rep. Joe Marino, one of the independent lawmakers who cast a critical vote to override Edwards’ veto of the Legislature’s map, said adopting a new one will not be that easy and repeated one of the main arguments from GOP lawmakers that a second Black district isn’t possible without diluting Black voting strength to the point where it actually becomes harder to elect a minority.
“I know that there were attempts to draw two maps, and there’s challenges to doing that,” Marino said. “It’s not as simple as the governor is saying.”
Democrats in the Legislature and voting rights advocates submitted a variety of proposed maps that include two majority-Black congressional districts, comply with the Voting Rights Act and score higher on geographical compactness and other traditional redistricting criteria than the current GOP-backed map. In her ruling, Dick suggested lawmakers could quickly enact a remedial map if they use some of these proposed plans as a template.
In a statement released Monday, Rep. Royce Duplesses, D-New Orleans, urged his colleagues in the Legislature to stop spending taxpayer money in an attempt to defend an unconstitutional redistricting map.
“Federal court has already declared the map unconstitutional, and we have a duty to correct this,” Duplessis wrote. “However, some of my colleagues are paying private lawyers $60k (PER MONTH) in taxpayer money to continue defending a map that the Court has declared illegal. This is unacceptable. We must pass fair maps now.”
Louisiana Illuminator Editor Greg LaRose contributed to this report.