Louisiana Legislature hires law firm with Republican ties to advise on political maps

By: - February 5, 2022 12:36 pm
Louisiana Senate redistricting map

(Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)

The GOP-led Louisiana Legislature is using public funds to pay a law firm with ties to the Republican party to advise on creating new political districts. 

BakerHostetler has offices throughout the country and extensive experience working on redistricting and election litigation for states and candidates. One of its attorneys, Mark Braden, was general counsel to the Republican National Committee for 10 years. He is also on the board of the Republican National Lawyers Association, which named him the Republican lawyer of the year in 2014.

Louisiana lawmakers are currently in the middle of a special session on political redistricting where they are redrawing the lines for Louisiana’s U.S. House seats, state Senate, state House of Representatives, Public Service Commission and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. They may also rework the state Supreme Court districts.

Civil rights organizations have threatened to sue if the lawmakers approve maps for the U.S. House and the Legislature that don’t add majority-minority seats. Louisiana’s population is 33% Black, but majority-Black districts make up less than a third of Louisiana’s political seats at the federal and state level. 

So far, the Republican leadership in the Legislature has not been willing to add majority-minority seats to political maps. All of the GOP leadership’s proposals maintain majority-minority districts at their current levels, making lawsuits from the NAACP and ACLU of Louisiana likely.

Earlier in the week, Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, said the Louisiana Senate and House had coordinated to hire the same law firm to “provide guidance” on the redistricting process. The law firm, in turn, had hired a political consultant to conduct a racially polarized voting analysis, which is supposed to determine the extent to which voters of different races prefer different candidates in Louisiana.

Racially polarized voting often becomes a factor in federal voting rights lawsuits. Courts use it to help determine how many majority-minority districts are reasonable.

Cortez said Legislative leadership is not using public funds to pay any other outside contractor to work on redistricting. He said he had not hired redistricting consultants through his campaign account or a political action committee. 

The Senate President said he was unaware of “any specific party ties” that BakerHostetler had before the firm was picked for the redistricting work.

“They were chosen solely because of their experience and expertise with regard to redistricting matters,” Cortez said in a text Saturday.

Democratic leaders said the law firm was hired without any input from them. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Sam Jenkins, of Shreveport, said he hasn’t been given an opportunity to talk to the BakerHostetler attorneys about redistricting options. He didn’t even know the firm had been hired at all until a reporter contacted him Saturday.

“We were never consulted about engaging a law firm for the House to act in any capacity for redistricting,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins said the Democratic Caucus is working with its own political redistricting consultant provided by the Louisiana Democratic Party, though the caucus isn’t paying for the services. The person has been “on loan” from the state party as Democratic lawmakers draw their political map proposals.

It’s not clear that Braden, specifically, is advising the Legislature’s leadership on redistricting. Cortez told a reporter in a text message Friday night that BakerHostetler had received the legal contracts, but didn’t say which of the firm’s attorneys had been assigned to do the work.

Braden specializes in state election law and handles much of the high-profile redistricting and election litigation at BakerHostetler. He has worked as lead counsel on election and voting rights litigation in Virginia, New York, Wyoming, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Georgia, Nevada, Maryland and Connecticut. 

Prior to joining the law firm, he was the counsel to the Ohio Elections Commission and successfully defended that state’s Republican-drawn political maps against a legal challenge in 2012.  At the time, a lawsuit filed by Ohio voters accused Republicans of drawing political lines that unfairly benefited the GOP in statehouse elections. 

Michigan’s redistricting commission – a nonpartisan body tasked with drawing that state’s political maps – was criticized last year for hiring BakerHostetler to work on its proposals. Advocates for nonpartisan redistricting were particularly worried that the law firm had defended Republican-drawn maps in other states that were eventually thrown out over gerrymandering concerns, according to the Detroit Free Press.

BakerHostetler defended itself in Michigan by saying that it had worked “both sides of the issue” by representing clients who were both accusing government bodies of gerrymandering and those that needed defense from gerrymandering accusations.

Louisiana’s redistricting session in 2011 became mired in controversy over a similar law firm contract. 

Former House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Algiers, left House Democrats in the dark before hiring Holtzman Vogel law firm to work on redistricting that year. The firm helped Louisiana’s political maps earn pre-clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice and was supposed to defend Louisiana if any redistricting lawsuits cropped up.  

Holtzman Vogel is also affiliated with Republicans. The firm had already advised the Louisiana House Republican delegation on redistricting before Tucker hired the attorneys, with taxpayer dollars, to represent the full House. 

At the time, House Democrats said the law firm’s work for the House Republican delegation created a conflict of interest and that the law firm shouldn’t be representing the entire House. Tucker defended the decision, saying that Holtzman Vogel had not been paid for advice it offered to the GOP delegation.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, who was the head of the House Democratic Caucus in 2011, was among those who criticized the Holtzman Vogel contract.

“You can’t represent the whole body when you spent the session advising on part of the House,” said Edwards in 2011, referring to Republicans.

The Times-Picayune reported the contract with Holtzman Vogel ended up costing the House $81,000. Tucker paid for it by keeping some House employee positions vacant. The Senate Louisiana did not use outside counsel in 2011, and relied on staff attorneys and demographers to create its maps.

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press.