Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Federal court tosses Landry-backed Louisiana congressional map

by BIZ Magazine

BY: PIPER HUTCHINSONLouisiana Illuminator

A panel of federal judges has thrown out Louisiana’s new congressional map that created a second majority Black district, dealing a blow to one of Gov. Jeff Landry’s first official actions in office.

The 2-1 decision from a U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals panel comes in the case Callais v. Landry, in which a group of non-Black voters sued the state. They contend the map, signed into law after a five-day special legislative session convened at the governor’s direction, constitutes an unconstitutional racial gerrymander and violates the 14th and 15th amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

The two judges who sided with the plaintiffs are former President Donald Trump appointees to the federal bench, while the dissenter was a nominee of former President Bill Clinton.

While Landry and Republican allies argued that politics was the predominant factor in the drafting of the new map, the judges found that race was the true motivator. Partisan gerrymandering remains legal in the United States, but racial gerrymandering is not.

“Politics drove the map,” Sen. Glen Womack, R-Harrisonburg, author of the congressional redistricting bill, said during a special redistricting session earlier this year.

A key part of the court’s finding that the map constitutes a racial gerrymander is the shape of the new 6th Congress District, which runs from Caddo Parish in northwest Louisiana down to East Baton Rouge Parish, crossing the center of the state diagonally to pick up communities of Black voters along the way.

“The Court finds that … District 6 does not satisfy the ‘geographically compact’ and ‘reasonably configured’ Gingles requirement,” the opinion reads.

Womack said the primary goal of his map was to provide political protection to U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-Benton, Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, and Rep. Julia Letlow, R-Start, the delegation’s sole woman.

The new redistricting plan was enacted in response to an order from U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick, an appointee of President Barack Obama, in the case Robinson v. Landry. She gave the Legislature until Jan. 31 to redraw the lines, as she ruled the enacted map violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. A version lawmakers approved in 2022 retained a single majority-Black district, leading to a lawsuit from a group of Black voters to block its boundaries from taking effect.

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act prohibits voting laws or procedures that purposefully discriminate on the basis of race, color or membership in a language minority group. Diluting the voting power of racial minorities is one way the law can be violated.

Proponents of Womack’s proposal have said the only way to protect the three aforementioned Republican members and comply with Dick’s instructions was to draw the sprawling 6th District, which some referred to as a “slash map.”

Jared Evans, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund who represents the plaintiffs in Robinson v. Landry, expressed disappointment in the ruling in an interview.

“This was the governor’s map … this was never our map,” Evans said. “While we’re disappointed in the ruling, because it means that we don’t have a map, we are very optimistic about the process.”

Attorney General Liz Murrill said she hopes the U.S. Supreme Court will review the ruling.

“I’ve said all along the Supreme Court needs to clear this up,” Murrill said in a statement to the Illuminator. “The jurisprudence and litigation involving redistricting has made it impossible to not have federal judges drawing maps. It’s not right and they need to fix it.”

While plaintiffs in the Robinson case supported the Womack map, they preferred several others put forward by Black lawmakers that drew a substantially more compact majority Black district. This version was opposed by Republicans because it would likely have led to Letlow losing her 5th District seat, while U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, would likely be re-elected in the 6th District.

While no lawmaker outwardly said so, Graves was chosen as a sacrificial lamb, perhaps in part because he was widely viewed as insufficiently supportive of Scalise’s failed bid for U.S. House speaker. Graves also endorsed Stephen Waguespack, one of Landry’s opponents in the 2023 gubernatorial election, potentially putting him crosswise with a powerful governor whose interests drove the special session.

Judges in the Callais case did not find these considerations compelling.

“Given the slim majority Republicans hold in the United States House of Representatives, even if such personal or intra-party animosity did or does exist, it is difficult to fathom that Louisiana Republicans would intentionally concede a seat to a Democratic candidate on those bases,” a footnote from the majority opinion reads.

Representatives for each party will meet in federal court on Monday to chart a path forward. Secretary of State Nancy Landry has said she needs any new map by May 15 in order to have it in effect for the November congressional elections.

One possibility is a court-imposed map, Evans said.

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