Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Louisiana Legislature gets time to draw congressional map in third redistricting session

by BIZ Magazine

By Wes Muller, Louisiana Illuminator

A federal judge on Monday gave Louisiana lawmakers an extra two weeks to draw a new congressional map that doesn’t violate the Voting Rights Act, allowing time for the incoming governor to convene a third redistricting session within a year’s time.

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled earlier this month that legislators had until Jan. 15 to redraw Louisiana’s congressional boundaries to comply with a district court ruling to add a second majority-Black district. Otherwise, a trial would begin on the merits of a lawsuit that Black voters and civil rights groups brought against the state last year after Republican lawmakers adopted a map with just one Black district out of six despite the state having a population that is one-third Black. 

The trial would be held in Louisiana’s Middle District under Judge Shelly Dick, an Obama appointee who previously ruled the existing map dilutes the voting rights of Black residents. 

The appeals court also noted that Dick had discretion to give the state a deadline extension. Dick used that authority Monday and granted a request from the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office to push the deadline back to Jan. 30, 2024. 

Whether the Republican-dominated Louisiana Legislature will actually utilize the extension by holding a special redistricting session remains to be seen. 

Incoming House Speaker Phillip DeVillier, R-Eunice, told the Times-Picayune he doesn’t think the session can happen in time, repeating the same argument his predecessor Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, made in court last year in an attempt to explain his party’s failure to comply with Dick’s order during the second redistricting session. DeVillier did not respond to the Illuminator’s request for comment Wednesday.

Gov.-elect Jeff Landry cannot convene a special session of the legislature until after he’s inaugurated Jan. 8 — the same day lawmakers are sworn into office and begin an organizational session that can’t last longer than three years by law.

State law also requires a special session begin no sooner than seven days after the governor issues a proclamation that includes its parameters. That means the earliest a special session could take place is Jan. 15, and Landry has already indicated he intends to call special sessions to deal with crime and the state’s insurance crisis.    

Last year when Dick demanded legislative leaders produce a new congressional map, lawmakers requested a 10-day extension, arguing that five days — the bare minimum for a measure to wind its way through the approval process — wasn’t enough. Yet right before he filed the request, Schexnayder gave House members a day off in the middle of the five-day session that he then claimed was too short.

After the House took a day off, the Louisiana Senate had advanced a potentially-compliant map to the chamber floor that gave Black voters slight majorities in two of the six districts and had three days still left before the judge’s deadline. But that’s as far as the proposal got.

Both the legislature and the court have already vetted several maps that would comply with the federal law, eliminating the need to bring in demographers, legal consultants and map experts who are typical participants in a full redistricting session.

Although DeVillier has expressed doubts about holding a session, the state’s lawyers seem to have other ideas, according to NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney Jared Evans.

In court Monday, the attorney general’s office “told the judge that the governor-elect plans on calling a session shortly after, if not immediately after, he’s sworn in,” Evans said.

Whether the Republicans would actually use a third redistricting session to produce a map that is acceptable to the court is also a question many are asking. The previous attempt last June failed and delayed the case until the U.S. Supreme Court stayed Dick’s proceedings just a day before her deadline arrived, giving the plaintiffs a huge last-minute bailout that benefitted Republicans in the 2022 midterm elections.

Before this latest deadline extension, Judge Dick had a previous deadline to enact a new map back in September, but the 5th Circuit canceled it upon the request of the plaintiffs.

Separately, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana is challenging the legislative district maps approved last year, arguing in a trial this week that those maps also don’t fairly represent the state’s Black voters.  

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