Louisiana Senate committee still at impasse over court-ordered congressional redistricting

By Victor Skinner, The Center Square contributor

The Louisiana Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee adjourned on the first day of a special six-day redistricting session without approving a bill to add a second minority-majority congressional district, as ordered by the court.

Committee members voted 6-3 to hold Senate Bill 1, sponsored by Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, until Friday to give lawmakers and the public time to consider a series of amendments added in committee during a five-hour hearing on Thursday.

SB 1, which is similar to a bill Fields offered during the regular session, aims to expand the number of black congressional districts in Louisiana from one to two, as required by a recent ruling from U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick.

Republicans approved a new congressional district map during an extraordinary session in February, maintaining the status quo of one black district out of six. Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed the map and Republicans overrode the veto.

Civil rights groups and voting rights advocates immediately sued to block the map over alleged violations of the U.S. Voting Rights Act, which requires lawmakers to provide minorities with an opportunity to elect a representative of their choice, if possible.

Dick agreed the map violated the law and gave lawmakers six days, until Monday at 6 p.m., to craft a new map with two black districts and she promised to create one herself if they fail. Republicans appealed Dick’s ruling but the appeals court denied a request to halt Dick’s order as the case proceeds.

In the Senate committee, Fields detailed how SB 1 would create a second majority black district in the 5th Congressional District, which is currently held by Republican U.S. Rep. Julia Letlow, who is in her first term. U.S. Rep. Troy Carter, a Democrat in the 2nd District, represents the state’s sole black majority congressional district.

Local representatives from Vernon, Lafayette and St. Tammany parishes testified against SB 1 over objections to how it splits parishes.

The committee adopted an amendment by Sen. Mike Reese, R-Leesville, to shift the boundaries of Districts 3 and 4 to preserve Fort Polk Army Base and Vernon Parish in one district, and the amendment was adopted without objection after a lengthy discussion.

The committee also adopted an amendment from Sen. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, to revert to the districts in the current map after the November election if Republicans win their appeal.

Fields and Democrats on the committee repeatedly urged their colleagues to advance SB 1 to the Senate floor for debate today but were outvoted by Republicans 6-3. Fields stressed that holding the bill would result in lawmakers violating Dick’s order by not leaving enough time to approve the measure in both chambers.

“Let’s not play games with a federal court,” Fields said.

Republicans countered that lawmakers and constituents deserve time to digest and weigh in on the changes in Reese’s amendment before approval.

As senators debated SB 1, Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzalez, argued in a 90-minute hearing before Dick that six days isn’t enough time to approve a new map, and requested an extension until at least June 30.

Dick denied the request and admonished Schexnayder for the House wasting the first day of the special session on Wednesday without making progress, as well as the speaker introducing legislation that did not include a second black congressional district.

Dick highlighted federal law that empowers judges to fine or imprison those who violate a court order and asked Schexnayder why he shouldn’t be held in contempt, the Advocate reports.

Schexnayder said his bill is a “placeholder” to be amended or used as necessary, but Dick described the House effort as “disingenuous” and “insincere,” noting that lawmakers have approved congressional maps in the past in six days.

Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, author of the congressional map approved by lawmakers in February and chair of the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee, said a second bill to create a second black congressional district is expected to be filed in the Senate today.

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