Louisiana Supreme Court redistricting bill falls short in House

Constitutional amendment would have added 2 seats to state’s high court

La. Supreme Court redistricting bill fails in House
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 redistricting bill that would add two Louisiana Supreme Court seats and allow lawmakers to redraw the entire district map failed to pass in the Louisiana House on Monday. Thirty Democrats, joined by one Republican and one independent, voted against the measure after GOP lawmakers struck from the bill a requirement to consider racial demographics when drawing the proposed new districts.

Senate Bill 163, co-authored by Sen. Patrick McMath (R-Covington) and Sen. Jimmy Harris (D-New Orleans), would add two new Supreme Court districts, increasing the size of the court from seven justices to nine. As a proposed constitutional amendment, the legislation requires a two-thirds supermajority and a majority of Louisiana voters would then have to approve it. With a 62–32 vote, the bill failed to get enough votes. Rep. Barry Ivey (R-Central) and Rep. Roy Adams (I-Jackson) joined Democrats in opposing it. 

For different reasons, both parties support drawing new districts. In general, Democrats, and particularly the Legislative Black Caucus, want another seat on the state’s highest court that a Black candidate could win, while Republicans want districts with roughly equal numbers of voters.

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. 

There are also significant population differences among the districts. Currently, the state’s most populated district is 75% more populous than the least-populated district, McMath said in committee May 18. 

“We have the most mal-apportioned Supreme Court in the entire nation,” Rep. John Stefanski (R-Crowley) said during floor debate Monday.

Lawmakers are at odds over a provision in the bill that would instruct them on what should be considered when a new Supreme Court map is drawn: population by itself or population and race. 

Stefanski proposed several amendments to the bill on Monday, one of which he described as a compromise that would require the consideration of population and demographics, but, as Rep. Wilford Carter (D-Lake Charles) pointed out, not “racial” demographics. Lawmakers adopted the amendment, which required only a simple majority, but the whole bill ultimately failed to gain two-thirds support.

A previous bipartisan compromise in a May 18 House and Governmental Affairs Committee added language to require that both population and race be considered when redistricting, but that language was deleted in an irregular and what one lawmaker suggested was an unprecedented move by Republicans in the House Civil Law and Procedure Committee on May 24.

At that meeting, the committee was tasked with deciding solely on the proposed ballot language that voters would see at the polls, but Rep. Alan Seabaugh (R-Shreveport) broke with procedural norms and moved to amend the substance of the constitutional amendment by tossing out the bipartisan language added by the House and Governmental Affairs Committee. Rep. Robby Carter (D-Amite) appealed to the chairman to halt the motion from proceeding, saying the committee had never before been allowed to make substantive changes to legislation. The chairman, Rep. Greg Miller (R-Norco), agreed that Seabaugh’s motion would break with regular procedure and long-standing tradition, but he allowed it to proceed and it passed 9–6 with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed.

Prior to Stefanski’s amendments on Monday, Seabaugh’s amendment left the bill directing lawmakers to consider only population when redistricting.

“We’ve got a problem on this bill,” Carter said from the House floor Monday as he recounted the maneuvering in the civil law committee. “In my history down here, I have never seen Civil Law (Committee) put substantive amendments on a bill that didn’t affect the ballot language at all…This goes against all of what we should do.”

Following Carter’s speech, Rep. Ivey took the floor and urged his colleagues to reject the bill.

“Having served nine years, I’ve become increasingly disappointed in this institution and the lack of concern that we give to the responsibilities that we have to the people that we serve,” he said. 

Belle Chasse Democrat Mack Cormier joined Republicans in voting for the bill Monday, as did Rep. Joseph Marino (I-Gretna).  

The House could try again to move the bill, but the window of opportunity is closing. If the House does pass the measure, the Senate would need to concur with any amendments before the session ends Thursday evening. 

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