Louisiana Senators talk during a recess of floor debate on a redistricting map (pictured in background) amid the 2022 special redistricting session on Feb. 18, 2022. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)
Gov. John Bel Edwards has so far declined to rescind his call for the Louisiana Legislature to convene a special session next week to redraw the state’s congressional districts that a federal judge ruled Monday were racially gerrymandered. Legislative leaders want the governor to call off the session after winning a temporary stay of the judge’s June 20 deadline for a new map.
Three judges from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans issued the temporary stay Thursday night on Judge Shelly Dick’s decision earlier in the week in Robinson v. Ardoin. Dick had given lawmakers until June 20 to redraw Louisiana’s six U.S. House districts after she determined the Republican-dominated state legislature unlawfully configured the map to tilt elections in favor of white conservative candidates – a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.
The 2020 Census indicated Louisiana’s population is nearly one-third Black, yet lawmakers adopted a map earlier this year in which five of the state’s six congressional districts are in majority white strongholds.
After Dick, an appointee of President Barack Obama, struck down the map Monday, Gov. John Bel Edwards called the Legislature into a five-day special session beginning June 15 to redraw the districts.
Lawmakers and Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin immediately appealed the decision and filed for a stay, asking the Fifth Circuit to lift the deadline. Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, also called on Edwards, a Democrat, to rescind his order to convene the special session.
The appeals court gave both sides until 4 p.m. Friday to present arguments on whether to lift the deadline while the judges take time to consider the merits of the appeal.
“In five days, trying to pass a constitutional map by the judge’s deadline is aggressive,” said Rep. John Stefanski, R-Crowley, who led redistricting efforts for the Louisiana House .
Jared Evans, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of several Louisiana voters, said Judge Dick’s “very strong” decision noted that much of the redistricting work has already been done since the plaintiffs presented several different versions of maps that abide by federal law.
“The crux of their entire argument is that there’s not enough time for a new map to be in place for the secretary of state to hold elections in November,” Evans said, adding that the same defendants made the exact opposite argument in a separate redistricting lawsuit pending in state court. The qualifying deadline for candidates can be moved back because Louisiana’s election calendar is one of the latest in the nation, Evans said.
Stefanski acknowledged the contradiction but said it’s not just about the qualifying deadline.
“There is a timeline in place where you have to know the precincts you’re running in,” he said.
In her ruling, Dick confronted the timeline issue head on, pointing to a recent ruling in a Wisconsin case in which its state supreme court found sufficient time to adopt maps when primary elections were 139 days away. Louisiana’s open congressional primary is Nov. 8, more than 150 days after Dick’s ruling.
As of Friday, the governor’s call for a June 15 special session remained in place. In a press release, Edwards said it was too early to rescind the order, noting there will likely be additional action from the Fifth Circuit before the session is set to begin.
The Louisiana Constitution is silent on whether the governor can rescind a call for a special session.
“If you interpret the constitution very strictly, you’d say you cannot rescind it,” Stefanski said. “If you interpret it liberally, you would say you can.”
In his statement Friday, the governor’s office said Edwards would rescind his call if the 5th Circuit’s stay is still in place by 4 p.m. Tuesday, the day before the session begins.
Like other unique situations that have emerged over the past two years, including the legal ambiguity over emergency health orders and veto overrides, lawmakers may once again have to maneuver without a statutory or constitutional play book.
“It seems it’s been like this throughout my entire term,” Stefanski said. “If you’re a constitutional nerd or you love government, these are interesting times, to say the least.”
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