Louisiana legislators, Republican Sen. Sharon Hewitt (middle) and her GOP colleagues Sen. Barry Milligan (left) and Sen. Glen Womack, study new congressional district maps proposed at the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)
Senate Democrats want more information about the law firm with Republican ties the Louisiana Legislature’s leadership quietly hired to help with political redistricting – and whose expertise wasn’t made available to all lawmakers working on political maps.
During debate Tuesday, Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, said she had communicated with a private attorney from BakerHostetler, the law firm hired by the Legislature, about whether her proposed U.S. House map – which passed the Senate – complied with federal voting rights laws. Senate Democrats, who have submitted their own map versions, said the law firm’s services were never made available to them.
Several Democrats weren’t even aware the law firm had been hired at all until reading media reports over the weekend.
If the law firm BakerHostetler is under a contract to represent the Legislature, presumably with public funds, Democrats said all senators – not just Hewitt and Republicans in leadership – should have access to its analysis and expertise.
Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, filed eight redistricting proposals, including three alternatives to Hewitt’s U.S. House map. He made a failed attempt Tuesday to add a second majority-Black district to Hewitt’s map on the Senate floor.
Fields said he wasn’t told the Senate had hired BakerHostetler, and he never got a chance to talk to one of its attorneys like Hewitt did, he said in an interview. He and other Democrats now want to see the law firm’s contract with the Legislature, so they have a better understanding of what the firm’s scope of services are supposed to be.
“If they are going to defend Sen. Hewitt’s map and no other senators have spoken to them, who are they defending?” Sen. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, said in an interview.
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After several rounds of questions about the law firm, Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, announced that information from the law firm would be made available to other senators “as I deem necessary.” He said BakerHostetler had primarily been hired because two lawsuits over redistricting had already been filed against the state.
Cortez did not address questions about why all senators hadn’t been made aware or had access to the law firm’s expertise. He also didn’t explain why Hewitt had been communicating with the law firm if, as the Senate president told the chamber, the attorneys were hired for litigation purposes. It’s also not clear how BakerHostetler is being paid for its work.
Outside groups have called for more transparency surrounding redistricting legal contracts.
“Hiring outside lawyers and consultants to help with the complex process of redistricting is reasonable,” said Steven Procopio, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, a nonpartisan government watchdog organization, in a written statement. “However, the public has a right to know who is providing that outside expertise, what they’ve been hired to provide to lawmakers and how much it will cost, particularly if tax dollars are involved.”
Lawmakers have been preparing for litigation expected over the new political maps since the special session started a week ago. Republicans and Democratic legislators are not on the same side of those fights.
Civil rights organizations vowed to sue over Louisiana’s congressional and legislative maps unless they add majority-minority districts. Republicans who control the Legislature haven’t been willing to do so, making it more likely the maps will end up in court.
Those legal challenges are welcomed by Democratic lawmakers, who don’t have enough votes to get maps they want with additional majority-minority districts passed.
The Legislature’s partisan divide could be contributing to the secrecy surrounding the law firm’s work.
BakerHostetler has worked in states around the country on political redistricting and election litigation, and it has earned a reputation for defending Republicans against voting rights lawsuits. One of its attorneys, Mark Braden, was general counsel to the Republican National Committee for a decade.
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Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, said the firm was not chosen for its work with Republicans, but because of its experience and expertise. Kate McKnight, the BakerHostetler attorney Hewitt said she spoke with about her map, was on a redistricting panel last summer organized by the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.
“It was the [law firm] that was best suited to our state, whether it was Republican or Democrat,” Schexnayder said in an interview Sunday.
The Speaker and Cortez reviewed applications from and conducted interviews with four to five law firms before settling BakerHostetler for the redistricting contract, Schexnayder said.
Schexnayder didn’t tell Democratic leaders about the law firm because other legislators aren’t usually involved in picking vendors for the statehouse, he said. He likened the law firm’s selection to his recent choice of a new vendor for the public cafeteria in the Capitol building.
“I don’t normally consult the full House on those things,” Schexnayder said.
Schexnayder and Cortez said the firm was hired to handle litigation for the Legislature. But on Tuesday, Hewitt repeatedly refused to answer questions about whether BakerHostetler’s “client” includes the full Senate.
“Would [the BakerHostetler attorney] be available that I could ask her about the Voting Rights Act and the existing plan to see … why she thinks that this complies with the Voting Rights Act?” Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, asked Hewitt during debate over her congressional map proposal.
“I can’t tell you if she would speak to you or not. I don’t know,” Hewitt responded.
“Why wouldn’t she speak to me?” Peterson asked.
“You’ll have to call and ask her. I have no idea. She’s under contract,” Hewitt said.
“With whom?” Peterson asked.
“Ask the Senate President or the Speaker. I don’t know who the contract is between,” Hewitt said.
“Why did you get to talk to her?” Peterson asked.
“Because I’m chairing the committee and drafting the bills,” Hewitt said.
“So only chairmen that chair the committee and draft the bills get to talk to the lawyer that’s paid for by the state?” Peterson asked.
“I have no idea,” Hewitt said.
Whether all of the lawmakers are considered clients of the law firm is relevant because it could determine how much access Democrats have to the firm’s work. The Democrats are especially interested in a data review of voting patterns the law firm handled.
Hewitt and Cortez have said the law firm has contracted with an expert to work on a racially polarized voting analysis. Those studies are considered crucial to legal challenges over voting rights. They help courts determine to what extent people of different races prefer different candidates and inform how many majority-minority districts might be needed.
Democrats want to see the racially polarized voting research, but Hewitt repeatedly said she doesn’t have any documentation of the analysis because the experts found it difficult to complete.
“There is no report. Just some preliminary information that they are still trying to find enough data, that there’s too much scatter in the data and too much uncertainty – too much noise is what they keep saying,” Hewitt told senators.
“I don’t have anything in writing,” she added.
Hewitt also said she didn’t know the name of the analyst who conducted the voting analysis for BakerHostetler and identified the person as “somebody from Stanford University.”
Jackson said the analyst’s name should be shared with the entire Senate and any information given to Hewitt should also be handed over to legislators who want to review it.
“I’m asking that that name be shared with the senators so that those who are interested in a minority district may have an opportunity to talk to that person,” Jackson told Hewitt. “I’m sure, as a practicing attorney, that that person sent something to the firm to conclude his or her work.”
McKnight, the lawyer that Hewitt consulted, has advised state legislators, in general, to avoid a paper trail when it comes to redistricting, according to an article on the National Council of State Legislatures website.
“I will always talk about email hygiene. Please,” McKnight told lawmakers from around the country last summer. “If you can meet with someone in person, do that. If you can’t do that, call them. If you absolutely must, send them an email (that says): ‘Call me.’”
There’s also no clarity on how BakerHostetler is being paid and how much its lawyers will be compensated. Cortez said Tuesday that no public funds had been spent on the firm.
“There has been zero money spent on the law firm. They have been hired for litigation purposes in the two lawsuits that have been filed against the state of Louisiana,” Cortez said.
Cortez and Schexnayder have also said in interviews that they haven’t paid the law firm from their campaign accounts or political action committees. Schexnayder also said the leadership’s non-profit, Leading Louisiana, is not paying for the law firm. In addition, they said no outside contractor or consultant for redistricting has been compensated from those non-public accounts.
The Louisiana Illuminator and other media outlets submitted public records requests last week for a copy of the BakerHostetler contract with the government.
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