A challenge to Louisiana’s newly drawn congressional maps opened Monday in federal court, with a coalition of civil rights groups hoping judges will eventually do what legislators wouldn’t: create a second majority-Black district.
Louisiana has six congressional districts, and the plaintiffs say the Legislature illegally diluted the voting power of Black residents by leaving the state with just one Black-majority district even though two out of every six residents of Louisiana is Black.
The plaintiffs want U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick to grant a preliminary injunction that would toss the new maps in favor of a different set of maps prepared by plaintiff expert Anthony Fairfax that would increase the number of majority-Black congressional districts from one to two.
Dick’s ruling, whatever it is, is likely to be appealed.
The new congressional maps, if preserved, take effect with the Nov. 8 elections, for which qualifying occurs July 20-22. Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed these congressional maps, labeling them an egregious violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, only to have the Legislature override his veto on March 30.
Civil rights groups sued the following day.
The plaintiffs, however, could possibly go before an increasingly skeptical U.S. Supreme Court.
In February, the high court’s conservative majority stayed a lower court’s order in Alabama invalidating that state’s new congressional maps, saying it came too close to the start of absentee voting in Alabama’s primary election. The court agreed to hear the Alabama case on its merits in its next term, and in the interim, it ordered Alabama to conduct its congressional elections with the existing map.
On Monday, Dick heard from Fairfax as well as another expert witness for the plaintiffs, William Cooper, the expert witnesses for the plaintiffs, both of whom drew up alternative congressional maps with at least two majority-Black districts. Dick also heard testimony from a few Louisiana citizens who are named plaintiffs in the case and say that keeping the current maps would be an irreparable injury to them.
Dick’s courtroom was filled with attorneys, many from out of state, representing not just the plaintiffs and Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, the defendant, but an array of other parties who have successfully intervened to join the case. These intervenors include Attorney General Jeff Landry, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus and Senate President Page Cortez.
Fairfax, a demographer from Hampton, Virginia, was called by NAACP Legal & Educational Defense Fund attorney Kathryn Sadasivan.
Fairfax said he had no trouble finding enough Black voters to justify creating a second congressional district out of the northeast Louisiana-based District 5, currently represented by Julia Letlow, who lives near Monroe. Fairfax’s final plan had a bare Black majority of voting age population of 52%, but he said at times he considered maps with even more Black voters but opted instead for his final map because it was more compact and kept communities together.
“It led me to me believe (the black population) is significantly large,” Fairfax said.
Both Fairfax and Cooper were questioned as to whether they relied heavily on racial considerations, a claim both of them denied.
“It is one of several traditional redistricting principles,” responded Cooper. “I try to balance them all.”
Both Fairfax and Cooper testified that they don’t look at race exclusively, but at a range of socioeconomic factors from the level of education to housing to food stamp rates as they develop their maps.
Fairfax admitted the mapping software he uses has a view that lets you look at racial breakdowns whenever you want, but Fairfax said he only looks at that date at the beginning and the end. While he’s making the maps, he relies on other socioeconomic data, he said.
Phillip Strach, an attorney based in Raleigh, N.C., representing Ardoin’s office, asked Fairfax why he felt the need to dip south into East Baton Rouge Parish for his District 5 rather than taking in parishes on the district’s west side.
Fairfax said the parishes he grouped together had more in common than the ones to the west but he also acknowledged that a second-majority Black district needed to draw in voters close to a population center like Baton Rouge.
“I would say if I removed East Baton Rouge, it would be very difficult,” Fairfax said.