5th Circuit will hear decades-long case over Black seat on La. Supreme Court

Voting rights for Blacks could be in jeopardy

By: - February 27, 2023 6:25 pm
The exterior of the Louisiana Supreme Court building in New Orleans' French Quarter

The Louisiana Supreme Court Building on Royal Street in New Orleans, Dec. 7, 2021. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)

A federal appeals panel will consider whether to dissolve the only Black seat on Louisiana’s highest court. 

The U.S. 5th Circuit in New Orleans will hear oral arguments next week in Chisom v. State of Louisiana, a decades old voting rights case that Black residents in New Orleans successfully litigated to gain their one and only seat of representation on the Louisiana Supreme Court.  

Ronald Chisom and several other plaintiffs sued the state in 1986, alleging Louisiana’s Supreme Court districts were gerrymandered to dilute Black voting strength. After many proceedings, the case resulted in a consent judgment that created a new majority-Black district and gave way to the first Black person, Bernette Johnson, seated as an associate justice to the Louisiana Supreme Court in 1994. 

However, in the years since then the state has tried to wriggle free from one or more aspects of the agreement and is now asking the court to dissolve the consent judgment altogether. Doing so would effectively eliminate the immediate oversight the federal court provides to reign in any attempts to gerrymander the districts again or otherwise violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“There is no doubt that the judgment is the only stopgap measure preserving the Seventh Judicial District, the sole majority-Black Supreme Court voting district in the state,” ACLU spokesperson Michelle Moore said in a press release. “The Court might very well return to the all-white body it had been for nearly 179 years before the Chisom case made it racially diverse.”

The state argues that it satisfied the consent judgment after Johnson was elected to her seat and that the populations among the current districts are severely unequal. 

White people still hold six of the seven seats on the state’s high court even though Louisiana’s population is one-third Black. Attempts to expand Black representation in any of the state’s political districts have stalled against opposition in Louisiana’s majority-Republican legislature, most recently in last year’s special redistricting session.  

Last year a federal judge ruled in favor of Black Louisianans in a separate voting rights case that found state lawmakers racially gerrymandered the state’s congressional map. U.S. District Court Judge Shelly Dick, of Louisiana’s Middle District in Baton Rouge, ruled in Robinson v. Ardoin that the legislature adopted a map in February that tilted elections in favor of white conservative candidates. 

Supreme Court blocks judge from drawing Louisiana’s congressional map

Louisiana’s population had grown to be one-third Black, according to the 2020 Census, but GOP lawmakers refused to give Black voters a second congressional seat out of the state’s six U.S. House districts. 

The 5th Circuit even signaled it was inclined to agree with Dick’s ruling. However, just as the judge was about to enact a new congressional map with two majority-Black districts, the U.S. Supreme Court’s new conservative majority snatched the case away with an unsigned unexplained order that shut down any hope Black voters in Louisiana had of gaining representation for the 2022 midterm elections. Its justices are expected to make a decision in that case later this year.

Arguments in the Chisom case will begin at 9 a.m. Monday at the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.


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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi.