The Louisiana Supreme Court building on Royal Street in New Orleans. The statue of segregationist Edward White, a former Louisiana Supreme Court justice and Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court was relocated inside Wednesday. (Photo by Jarvis DeBerry)
A bill that would change the number of Louisiana Supreme Court justices from seven to nine and require that each district be equal in population cleared a House and Governmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
Senate Bill 163, co-sponsored by Sen. Patrick McMath (R-Covington) and Sen. Jimmy Harris (D-New Orleans), is a proposed constitutional amendment that has already passed the Senate and is now moving through the House. If two-thirds of the House supports it, Louisiana voters will get to approve or reject it on Oct. 9.
Both Republicans and Democrats are hoping to gain something from the bill, and lawmakers see it as an opportunity to have some control over the redrawing of state Supreme Court district lines before the U.S. Supreme Court does it for them. Federal voting rights lawsuits are still pending over the demographic makeup of Louisiana’s current districts. They allege that current district lines dilute the voices of Black voters. Democrats, particularly the Legislative Black Caucus, see the bill as an opportunity to gain more representation on the state’s highest court, while Republicans want more equal populations among the districts.
“This is an opportunity for us as a legislature to control the makeup of our Supreme Court,” McMath said.
Louisiana’s racial demographics reflect a population that is 58.4% White and 32.8% Black, according to 2019 Census Bureau estimates. However, six of the seven Supreme Court justices are White and only one is Black. The seat that’s occupied by 7th District Associate Justice Piper Griffin, Louisiana’s single Black justice, was added in 1991 as a result of a federal voting rights lawsuit.
“Back then we were told we’d get two judges, and we ended up getting one,” Rep. Wilford Carter (D-Lake Charles) said, referring to the 1991 litigation.
The bill would require lawmakers to redraw new state Supreme Court districts every 10 years when federal census numbers are reported. The new maps must be approved by a two-thirds vote of each chamber. If lawmakers cannot agree on the maps, the state Supreme Court would draw the lines.
Initially, the bill’s language required only that the districts be equal or close to equal in population. Currently, the state’s most populated district is 75% more populous than the least-populated district, McMath said.
On Tuesday, the House and Governmental Affairs Committee adopted an amendment to the bill that adds the requirement that demographics be considered when redrawing districts. It states: “When redistricting the supreme court districts, every effort shall be made to ensure that the number of supreme court districts with a majority population of persons in a racial minority group reflects the racial demographics of the population the state to the extent practicable.”
One sticking point in the bill is its take-effect date of Jan. 1, 2025. Carter proposed an amendment to move it up to 2023, but the committee rejected that idea as McMath argued it would leave too little time for judicial candidates to qualify and for lawmakers to ensure a smooth transition to nine districts.
The NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund wrote a letter in support of the bill, saying it is possible to draw a nine-district map that is both equitable in population and demographics.
But the organization asked lawmakers to not delay the transition until 2025 because three seats on the court will be up for election prior to 2025. Pointing out that justices serve 10-year terms, the NAACP wrote that if voters approve the constitutional amendment and the transition is delayed until 2025, then “three of the nine Justices would be elected to ten-year terms under an obsolete and dilutive structure after Louisiana voters had enacted a constitutional referendum to expand the Supreme Court to nine single-member districts.”
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