Jim Beam column: State had two Black districts

Published 6:28 am Wednesday, November 15, 2023

A three-judge federal appeals court panel has ordered the Louisiana Legislature to create a second majority-Black congressional district, but it wouldn’t be the first time the state had one.

The Legislature has until Jan. 15 to create the district and if it doesn’t, the court will draw the map.

Louisiana had two majority-Black districts from 1992 to 1996. Those who filed the original suit went to court in 1992 and won. So the Legislature drew two majority-Black districts.

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The New Orleans area already had a majority-Black district. The seat was held by former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson of New Orleans. The new second district was described by The Associated Press as “a skinny, 600-mile-long, Z-shaped squiggle” as the 4th District.

New individuals filed another suit saying the boundary lines were drawn with the sole intention of electing a Black congressman — something that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled unconstitutional. They won and the Legislature drew a new majority-Black district.

The new 250-mile-long majority-Black district was cut from northwest Louisiana to Baton Rouge like a sash — or as the judges said, “an inkblot with an aimless and tortuous path.”

Current state Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, was elected to Congress from the 4th District in 1992 and in 1994. Republican Jim McCrery of Leesville held the seat before and after Fields.

A Shreveport three-judge federal court panel redrew that map in 1996, which eliminated the 250-mile-long majority-Black district. The court said it was drawn with an unconstitutional emphasis on race.

The AP said the three-judge panel said their ruling on the matter was the third in as many years. They said, “We share the frustration of the Australian who went bonkers trying to throw away his old boomerang.”

“For yet a third time, we are called on to review the constitutionality of a congressional redistricting plan … And for yet a third time we conclude — just as we have concluded twice before” that the plan violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.”

The end result was that Louisiana, which at that time had seven congressional districts, ended up with six mostly White districts and Jefferson’s mostly Black district.

The new congressional map the Republican-dominated Legislature created at the first special legislative session in 2022 did not include a second majority-Black district and it was vetoed by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Edwards, in his veto message, said it was clear that the primary rationale behind the creation and passage of the GOP map was to protect incumbents and to preserve the party split in the current congressional delegation.

Civil rights groups filed suit and U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick of Baton Rouge ruled that the map was a violation of the Voting Rights Act. She said Black Louisianans ought to have a chance to decide who represents a third of the state’s six congressional districts.

The state appealed that decision to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which has now given the Legislature one last chance to do the job itself, according to a news report in The Advocate.

Gov.-elect Jeff Landry, who takes office Jan. 8, has indicated he will call a special legislative session to handle the reapportionment job. The appeals court has provided some flexibility if additional time past Jan. 15 is needed.

The newspaper said Edwards could still choose to call a special session before he leaves office but he said he doesn’t know yet what he is going to do.

If the Legislature doesn’t come up with a new map by the deadline, the district court will conduct a trial and any other necessary proceedings to decide the validity of the current map. If necessary, the court ruling said it could adopt a different redistricting plan for the 2024 elections.

The Legislature at its 2022 special reapportionment session filed at least seven maps, according to the Louisiana Illuminator in a June 17, 2022, report.

Southwest Louisiana parishes made up one district in reapportionment maps filed by Sen. Fields, and Reps. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, and Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge. The map that was approved by the Legislature kept Calcasieu, Cameron, and Jeff Davis parishes in the current 3rd District that runs along the coast.

As past experience has shown, anything that is done by the Legislature can still be challenged in court.

Edwards is confident there will be a second majority-Black district in the state. He was also correct when he said, “This is about simple math, basic fairness and the rule of law.”