Louisiana Legislature’s GOP leaders defend limited access to redistricting law firm

By: - February 10, 2022 8:38 pm

Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, clarified Thursday that a law firm hired to provide political redistricting advice to the Louisiana Legislature will eventually be paid with public funds, though no public money has been expended yet. 

In an interview, Cortez said he and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, are the gatekeepers for communication with BakerHostetler. Other lawmakers are not entitled to the firm’s resources and expertise, Cortez said, even though the firm is being paid to work as legal counsel for the entire Senate and House of Representatives.

Democratic lawmakers complained this week that they had not even been told the firm had been hired, let alone been given access to its services. The attorneys have given advice on GOP-backed maps, but not any of the Democratic proposals.

“I don’t understand how we hired a firm to represent all of us, when it is really only working for some of us,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Sam Jenkins of Shreveport said.

BakerHostetler is a national law firm that specializes in political redistricting and election litigation. It has worked with other states across the country and is well-known for representing Republican officials and candidates.

Cortez and Schexnayder hired BakerHostetler in December to provide advice on political redistricting for at least $10,000 per month for three months, according to a contract obtained through a public records request this week

The firm’s monthly fee will increase to at least $60,000 if Louisiana ends up needing its services for voting rights litigation. If the work extends beyond the initial three-month time period, BakerHostetler’s contract qualifies for a renegotiation of its fees, according to the contract.

The Legislature is in the middle of a special session aimed at redrawing political boundaries for Louisiana’s U.S. House seats, the state Senate and House, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Public Service Commission and state Supreme Court. Lawmakers’ proposed maps for Congress and the statehouse are likely to draw lawsuits.

If you were being sued, wouldn’t you hire a lawyer? It’s common sense.

– Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette

Civil rights organizations want the Legislature to increase the state’s majority-Black political districts in federal and state government, but the Republican legislative leadership has been unwilling to do so.

Black residents make up a third of Louisiana’s total population, according to the latest Census data. Majority-Black districts account for a smaller portion of representation across the state’s political subdivisions. Civil rights groups have said they will pursue legal challenges based on allegations that maps without additional majority-Black seats – such the ones Cortez and Schexanyder back – disenfranchise Black voters. 

Two lawsuits over redistricting have already been filed against Louisiana, even though lawmakers haven’t finalized new political maps yet. Cortez said he couldn’t go into details about BakerHostetler’s work with Louisiana, in part because of those lawsuits. 

“If you were being sued, wouldn’t you hire a lawyer? It’s common sense,” Cortez said. 

The BakerHostetler contract suggests that only four lawmakers – Cortez, Schexnayder, Sen. Sharon Hewitt and Rep. John Stefanski – have clearance to talk to the firm’s attorneys. Hewitt, R-Slidell, and Stefanski, R-Crowley, chair the legislative committees overseeing the redistricting process.

Hewitt consulted the law firm regarding one of the proposed U.S. House maps Republican leadership backs. Stefanski said he had also talked to the attorneys about maps he and Schexnayder are pushing.

“I’ve talked to [the attorneys], but the conversations have been very limited from my end,” Stefanski said Thursday.

Cortez and Schexnayder made the final decision about hiring BakerHostetler. Stefanski helped vet law firms for the redistricting contract last year, he said.

While the Republican leaders are gearing up to fend off legal challenges, their Democratic colleagues are welcoming those lawsuits. Democrats don’t have enough votes to force the GOP to add majority-minority districts, so the courts offer the best chance of getting the political maps they desire.

This partisan rift is likely why the Republican leadership has been tight-lipped about BakerHostetler’s work. 

The Democrats particularly want access to a racially polarized voting analysis that BakerHostetler hired an outside data expert to perform. Such 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.  

Hewitt said earlier this week she had talked to BakerHostetler about the racially polarized voting analysis of Louisiana, but the study hadn’t been completed due to “noisy” and “scattered” data. Stefanski said he had never talked to the law firm or its contractor about the analysis.

Democrats also weren’t the only ones in the dark about BakerHostetler. House Republican Caucus Chairman Blake Miguez, R-Erath, said he was never told the GOP leadership had contracted with a law firm for redistricting. He found out about the BakerHostetler arrangement through media reports a few days ago.

“I’m not in that small circle [of lawmakers] that knew about that,” Miguez said in an interview Thursday.

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator and producer of the Louisiana Illuminator podcast. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press. Julie covered state government and politics for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune for six years. She’s also covered government and politics in Missouri, Virginia and Washington D.C. Julie is a proud D.C. native and Washington Capitals hockey fan. She and her partner, Jed, live in Baton Rouge. She has two stepchildren, Quinn and Steven.

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