Speaker gives Louisiana House day off while asking judge for more redistricting time

Update: Judge Shelly Dick denied the request of legislative leaders for more time to submit new congressional districts.

The Speaker of the Louisiana House of Representatives is giving members the day off Thursday despite complaints he will take to a federal judge that there’s not enough time to redraw Louisiana’s congressional districts to meet a court-ordered deadline next Monday.

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, began the five-day special session Wednesday, saying the break is in the interest of “transparency” in that it will give the public time to look at four different proposals representatives have filed.

Schexnayder and Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, will appear Thursday before U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick of Louisiana’s Middle District. They filed a motion for a 10-day extension of her June 20 deadline for the Legislature to adopt a new map of Louisiana’s six U.S. House districts.

Dick, an appointee of President Barack Obama, ruled against the legislative leaders June 6 in a lawsuit, Robinson v. Ardoin, from a group of Black Louisiana voters who sued to block the implementation of the congressional map the GOP-led Legislature approved in February. That map has only one majority-Black district out of six, although one-third of the state’s population is Black, according to the 2020 Census.

The House will begin consideration of four newly-proposed maps in committee Friday. The Senate, where two map bills have been filed, will begin committee hearings Thursday.

“It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me,” Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, said. “We should be meeting tomorrow.” 

Duplessis has filed one of three bills in the House that call for a second Black-majority congressional district in Louisiana. Schexnayder is the author of the fourth bill, a status quo map that keeps the number at one. The two Senate proposals also differ in the number of Black districts.   

Many Republican lawmakers are still hoping for a bailout from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, where defendants in the voter lawsuit have challenged Dick’s ruling. She found the Legislature racially gerrymandered five of the six districts to favor white conservative candidates and specifically ordered lawmakers to redraw them to include two majority-Black districts. 

Arguments in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals have been scheduled for July 8.

In his opening remarks to House members Wednesday, Schexnayder said the special session was “premature and unnecessary” because the appeal is still pending. Members of the Legislative Black Caucus pointed out Wednesday that three 5th Circuit judges rejected the speaker’s argument when they lifted a temporary stay of Dick’s decision Sunday. While a separate appellate panel has not yet ruled on the merits of the case, the judges who decided against the stay said the defendants are unlikely to succeed in their appeal. 

In response to the speaker’s remarks, Rep. Tammy Phelps, D-Shreveport, said it was “premature” for legislative leaders to hire lawyers in the middle of the first redistricting session in an effort to discriminate against Black voters.

About midway through the first redistricting session in February, the Illuminator reported that GOP leadership contracted with a private law firm for “redistricting advice” at taxpayers’ expense, which the contract now places at $60,000 per month. Few details have been made public about the work BakerHostetler is doing for lawmakers, and only a few select GOP legislative leaders have been given access to their counsel.

Reaching across the House aisle Wednesday, Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central, said lawmakers have an obligation to at least attempt to abide by the judge’s order to draw a second majority-Black district. He urged his colleagues to not gamble on a speculative appellate ruling.

“I recognize that the probability of failure is far greater than the probability of success,” Ivey said. “That said, I believe it is incumbent upon us to at least try” to approve a second Black district.

Ivey, who opposed a second Black congressional district in February and voted to override the governor’s veto of the current map, proposed a new version Wednesday that would add a second Black district. 

Duplessis asked Schexnayder if his proposal would comply with Judge Dick’s order that any map enacted must have two majority-Black districts. The speaker avoided a direct answer, saying only that his proposal “complies with redistricting.”

“We’re either going to respect the law, or we’re not going to respect the law,” Duplessis said.

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