After more than a year of dormancy, the fierce legal battle over Black representation in Louisiana’s congressional district map is headed back to court in New Orleans this week.

At stake is whether Louisiana can keep using a congressional district map that civil rights advocates argue was gerrymandered by a Republican-dominated state legislature to strip the state’s Black residents of equal representation at the federal level. Currently, only one out of six of Louisiana’s congressional representatives is elected in a majority Black district, even though one of three Louisiana residents is Black.

Louisiana Republicans have consistently refused calls to add a second majority Black district. And legal opposition from those officials now threatens to delay the case until after the 2024 election, the second election since a federal court found that the current map likely violates the Voting Rights Act.

Last year, a group of plaintiffs including the NAACP and ACLU filed a lawsuit to force the state to add a second majority Black congressional district. U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick of Baton Rouge ruled in their favor in June 2022 and blocked the state from holding elections using the current map.

But a few weeks later, the Supreme Court put the case on hold while it considered a very similar voting rights case in Alabama. It took the Supreme Court more than a year to make a decision, but in June, the court ruled against state Republicans, likely forcing Alabama to add a new majority-Black district. 

The Alabama ruling allowed the Louisiana case to move forward again. And it also lends confidence that Louisiana will ultimately be forced to add a second majority-Black congressional district as well. 

“Alabama’s case was a slam dunk, and so is ours,” Jared Evans, senior policy counsel for the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, told Verite News. “We are confident that we will prevail in the end.”

On Friday (Oct. 6)  the Louisiana case will resume in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit Court in New Orleans, where state Republicans including Attorney General Jeff Landry are appealing Dick’s 2022 decision.

Meanwhile, there is a simultaneous battle over whether the lawsuit can move forward to the next phase of the case — drawing a new congressional map that doesn’t violate federal law. That process was supposed to begin this week in Dick’s Baton Rouge courtroom, but a last-minute challenge from Landry put it on hold. On Friday, a 5th Circuit panel ordered Dick to cancel the hearing. Dick has scheduled a status conference in the lawsuit for Oct. 17.

Over the weekend, plaintiffs in the case asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule the hold and allow the court to proceed creating new maps. The state has until Oct. 10 to respond. The Supreme Court will hand down a ruling sometime after that, but it’s impossible to predict when. 

The lawsuit has turned into a complicated jumble of overlapping court actions at various levels of federal court. But while the proceedings are complex, the plaintiffs say the stakes are clear: fair and legal representation of Louisiana’s Black residents.

Some legal observers have commented that while it appears Republicans in Louisiana and Alabama will ultimately lose, they seem to be doing everything in their power to at least delay the new maps until after the 2024 election. Already, both states successfully ensured the current maps were used in the 2022 election, even as courts found that they likely violated federal law. 

“They’ve been making various attempts to get this hearing off the calendar,” Nora Ahmed, legal director for the ACLU of Louisiana, said. “Time is of the essence. We cannot be in the situation we were in for the past election where illegal maps were used.”

Attorneys representing Landry and Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin did not respond to requests for comment on this story. 

The outcome of the case doesn’t just affect local residents. There are similar cases working their way through the courts in other states, including Texas and Georgia. With Republicans holding a slim majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, politicos across the country are closely watching whether reliable Republican districts can be carved up to make way for Democratic ones. 

“I can say that it’s clear that [Louisiana Republicans] have no interest in having this quickly or expeditiously resolved,” Evans said. “Theoretically, this type of litigation could go on for the rest of the decade.”

How we got here

For more than a century, civil rights advocates have complained of gerrymandered congressional districts that reduce Black representation, especially in the South. But the conversation was once again elevated by the 2020 decennial federal census. 

The 2020 census showed that Louisiana’s Black residents made up more than 30 percent of the state’s total population, but the state legislature passed a new map in 2022 that sustained the status quo and essentially ensured that five out of six of the districts remained majority white and solidly Republican. 

As had previously been the case, the state’s major Black population centers were tucked into a single, strangely shaped district that encompasses a thin portion of the state stretching from New Orleans to Baton Rouge.

Louisiana’s congressional district map. The 2nd District, the only majority Black district, is shown in red. Graphic by Charles Maldonado/Verite News

Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, vetoed the new map. But in an extraordinary move, the legislature voted to override the veto — the first time the Louisiana legislature has overridden veto since 1993. (The legislature has since overridden another gubernatorial veto, on a bill that banned gender-affirming care for youth.)

Soon after that, civil rights groups including the NAACP brought the lawsuit before Dick in the US District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana in Baton Rouge. After she ruled against the state in June 2022, Dick ordered the legislature to meet again to consider alternatives. That session ended early, without a new map

Louisiana’s lawsuit can be broadly broken down into two parts. First, there is the ruling on whether the current map violates the Voting Rights Act. Second, there is the proceeding to determine a new map that complies with federal law, which would almost certainly include two majority-Black districts.

The case has not gone to a full trial or received a final ruling. Dick’s order in June 2022 only granted a preliminary injunction — pending the outcome of a trial — to block the current map from being used in elections, and she ordered the state Legislature to draw a new map that complied with federal law.

But state Republicans immediately got to work trying to reverse the decision, successfully getting the Supreme Court to temporarily halt the ruling and put the case on hold until it issued a ruling in the Alabama case. 

In Alabama, similar to Louisiana, only one out of seven congressional districts is majority-Black, even though the state is 27% Black. In early 2022, a lower court ruled the newly redistricted Alabama map likely violated the Voting Rights Act. Alabama Republicans appealed, but in June of this year, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling. 

That opened the door for the Louisiana case to go back to court.   

On Friday, the Fifth Circuit is scheduled to hear arguments on an appeal from state Republicans trying to reverse Dick’s original preliminary injunction from 2022. 

“​​That’s going to be big,” Evans said. “If we win that, that’s going to be crucial. That’s going to allow everything to move forward.”

It’s unclear exactly when the court will rule on the appeal, however. 

“There’s no required time within which the 5th Circuit has to issue a decision,” Ahmed said.

Making things more confusing is that the state is only appealing a preliminary injunction, not a final ruling on the legality of the map. 

“​​A full trial on the merits can take years,” Evans said. “But there are political implications here. Because if we don’t have this map before the 2024 election, Black voters will suffer once again under an illegal and unfair map.”

Phase 2: drawing a new map

Then there’s the question of when Dick will be able to consider new maps for the state. That process was set to begin on Tuesday, prior to the 5th Circuit decision last week that cancelled it.

“The Supreme Court was clear in Alabama,” Ahmed said. “We should have been automatically proceeding to the passage of legal maps. There should have been no delay. … It is unfortunate and highly problematic that taxpayer money is being used to continue to essentially fight the people.”

Landry’s challenge came in the form of a request for a writ of mandamus, a court order compelling a government official to fulfill their official duties. A writ of mandamus is, by definition, an “extraordinary remedy” that is only supposed to be used when no other option is available and when it’s necessary to ensure a lower court is following the law. 

“A writ of mandamus is typically only used when the lower court judge has done something truly egregious that requires the appellate court to step in and correct something that is so far outside the bounds that no other process can deal with that,” Ahmed said. 

The plaintiffs in the case argued that the state is already appealing the preliminary injunction to the 5th Circuit, and that it would also have the option to appeal ruling Dick made on a new map. But the panel ruled for Landry. 

“I will say there was a bit of surprise that this writ of mandamus was taken seriously,” Ahmed said.

She said that even stranger than the granting of the writ was the justification provided in the majority opinion, which said the legislature had to be given the appropriate time to redraw a new map, and that it couldn’t be done through a “game of ambush.”

Ahmed pointed out that the state has had years to work on a new map, that Dick originally ordered the legislature to submit a new map by June 2022 and that plaintiffs had delivered numerous map options for the state to choose from. Stephen Higginson made similar arguments in his dissenting opinion. 

“It is this yearlong process that the majority inexplicably calls a ‘game of ambush.’” Higginson wrote. 

For now, it is a waiting game to see what the Supreme Court decides.

“We don’t know what the Supreme Court is going to do,” Ahmed said. 

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Before joining Verite, Michael Isaac Stein spent five years as an investigative reporter at The Lens, a nonprofit New Orleans news publication, covering local government, housing and labor issues. During...