By Piper Hutchinson, Louisiana Illuminator
On the last day of a legislative session marked by loss after loss for Louisiana liberals, legislative Democrats – particularly the Black Caucus – were all smiles after the U.S. Supreme Court sent down a redistricting win for Black voters in Alabama.
The Supreme Court dropped an opinion Thursday (June 8) upholding a lower federal court ruling that the congressional district maps Alabama approved in 2021 violated the Voting Rights Act. The decision could lead to new maps in Alabama — and Louisiana.
In a surprise 5-4 ruling, conservative Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined the court’s three liberals. They ruled Alabama’s map violated Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibits voting practices that discriminate based on race, color or membership in certain language groups. It is a major win for Black voters and preservation of the Voting Rights Act, which analysts say has been whittled down by the court in recent years.
“A district is not equally open … when minority voters face — unlike their majority peers — bloc voting along racial lines, arising against the backdrop of substantial racial discrimination within the State, that renders a minority vote unequal to a vote by a nonminority voter,” Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.
The ruling comes as good news to Louisiana Democrats, who are challenging Louisiana’s congressional map on similar grounds in a NAACP Legal Defense Fund-backed lawsuit, Ardoin v. Robinson.
The court challenge followed approval of the map state lawmakers approved in a special session earlier that year that kept five majority-white districts in place, despite a notable increase in the state’s Black population. Despite Black voters making up a third of Louisiana voters, only one of Louisiana’s six congressional districts was drawn to be majority Black.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, vetoed the map but was quickly overruled by the Republican-dominated legislature, which was joined by a small number of Democrats who supported the single majority-minority district maps.
Louisiana was shortly slammed with a lawsuit from Black voters and voter advocacy groups.
U.S. District Court Judge Shelly Dick in Baton Rouge ruled lawmakers racially gerrymandered the maps. The majority-Republican Legislature appealed that ruling, but the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans signaled that the lawmakers had a weak case.
Judge Dick planned to redraw the maps after the legislators refused. But the night before she could do so, the Supreme Court issued a last-minute stay of her order.
The Supreme Court sidelined Louisiana’s case while it considered Alabama’s, but Thursday’s ruling for Alabama signals a similar one is coming soon for Louisiana. NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney Jared Evans said he expects the justices will remand the Louisiana case back to the 5th Circuit.
Evans said he is confident the 5th Circuit will rule in favor of Black voters.
Legal analysts have said Louisiana’s case is even stronger than Alabama’s. Alabama has seven districts and a 26.8% Black population, while Louisiana has six districts and a 32.8% Black population.
“Right now this is a really great victory,” Evans said in a phone interview. “We’re grateful and really excited for Black voters in Alabama and for Louisiana, too.”
Republicans in the legislature conceded the ruling would have an impact.
Rep. John Stefanski, R-Crowley, who chairs the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees redistricting, had not yet reviewed the opinion but acknowledged the implications.
“The way our case, which is pending in federal district court, is tied to [the Alabama case], it will obviously have an impact in Louisiana,” Stefanski said.
Legislative Democrats were enthused.
“I’m ecstatic,” Sen. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, said with a grin.
Duplessis, who as a representative last year was vice chair of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, said he felt vindicated by the ruling.
“I can’t think of a better outcome from a legal standpoint from the Supreme Court, which many of us were actually very concerned about,” Duplessis said.
In a statement Thursday, Edwards said the court’s ruling affirms that “Louisiana can and should have a congressional map where two of our six districts are majority Black.”
Plaintiffs in the Alabama case argued the approach packed Black voters from Birmingham, Tuscaloosa and Montgomery into a single, expansive district, which lessened the power of Black voters outside of the district to meaningfully participate in the political process.
A federal court ruled in January 2022 that maps approved by the Alabama Legislature Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court stayed that decision in February, arguing there was not enough time before the congressional midterm elections to implement new maps.
Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, pointed out Louisiana has a higher Black population than Alabama. The maps he proposed to create two majority minority congressional districts in Louisiana were even more compact, a major redistricting consideration, than Alabama’s were.
Fields, who authored several alternative maps to ensure Black representation, previously held a majority Black district in Congress that the Supreme Court ultimately ruled in the 1990s to be unconstitutionally gerrymandered.
Fields’ proposed maps could be revived if Louisiana is ordered to add another majority Black district. He proposed reshaping Congressional District 5, which is currently held by Republican Rep. Julia Letlow, into a majority Black district that would hug the Mississippi border and stretch from northeastern Louisiana to Baton Rouge.
Fields’ proposal would also make Congressional District 2, presently the state’s only majority Black district, that Democratic Rep. Troy Carter holds, less Black.
Fields seemed confident that the ruling would mean another majority Black district for Louisiana.
“It’s very good news,” Fields said.
Reporter Wesley Muller contributed to this article.
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