A panel of federal appeals judges on Friday (Oct. 6) heard contesting arguments in a key voting rights case that will determine whether the state of Louisiana can continue to use a Republican-backed congressional district map that voting rights organizations say was gerrymandered to dilute Black voting power, in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. 

At the hearing, attorneys for plaintiffs suing the state — a coalition including the NAACP, the ACLU, and a group of Black voters — maintained that keeping a map approved by the Louisiana state Legislature last year would not only be unfair to the state’s voters but would go against a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in a similar case over Alabama’s congressional map. Attorneys representing Attorney General Jeff Landry and Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin contended that the map was not racially gerrymandered. 

Friday’s hearing at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit was the latest development in a long-running legal battle over the congressional map approved by the Louisiana state Legislature last year as part of the decennial redistricting process. The current map includes only one majority-Black district out of six — District 2, which stretches from New Orleans to Baton Rouge — in a state that is one-third Black. 

“We’re very optimistic, very confident in our record,” said Jared Evans, policy counsel at the Legal Defense Fund. “The facts are on our side and the law is on our side.” 

Friday’s oral arguments were part of an appeal from the state of a June 2022 federal district court ruling — by Judge Shelly Dick of Baton Rouge — finding that the Louisiana map likely violated federal law and would have to be redrawn. However, the case was put on hold for more than a year while the Supreme Court considered the Alabama case, which involved a similar set of facts. Alabama, which is nearly 30 percent Black, had a map with only one majority-Black district. 

In June, the Supreme Court determined that Alabama Republicans had violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by “cracking” the voting power of Black residents and “packing” them into a single district.

That ruling allowed the Louisiana lawsuit to move forward again, but the yearlong pause meant that Louisiana retained the legislature’s map for the 2022 congressional election. Plaintiffs worry that further delays in the case — including a 5th Circuit order last week canceling a hearing in Dick’s court to consider how to redraw the state’s map to include a second majority-Black district — could mean the same for the 2024 election. 

During Friday’s hearing, attorneys for the state argued that the Alabama case is materially different from the Louisiana case, dismissing plaintiffs’ arguments that the Alabama decision compels the 5th Circuit to rule against the state and affirm that the map is illegally gerrymandered. (Last year, state officials requested the case to be paused until the Alabama decision came down, stating the similarities between the two.)

Jason Brett Torchinsky, an attorney representing Landry, asked the appeals court for a “full trial on the merits” specific to Louisiana.

And Philip Strach, who is representing Ardoin, argued that a potential second majority-Black district would result in areas with little in common “other than the skin color” being lumped into the same district.

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

The plaintiffs attorneys argued that the district court’s June 2022 decision was based on firm evidence that proved the legislative maps violated federal law because Black voters represent a large, compact and politically cohesive population not reflected in the enacted maps. In fact, the district judge Dick noted that the state’s arguments about lack of cohesion applied to the oddly-shaped District 2 — the sole majority-Black district — which the Republican-controlled legislature approved.

Abha Khanna, an attorney for the plaintiffs, also pointed to the visual strangeness of the legislative maps; the narrow Black district looks nothing like the five other semi-rectangular ones. 

A large portion of the hearing also dealt with whether redrawing could commence while the appeal of Dick’s ruling is ongoing in the 5th Circuit and above it. However the 5th Circuit rules, the losing party is likely to seek a review from the Supreme Court.  

The case in Dick’s court was scheduled to move into the “remedy phase” this week, in which the judge was set to consider how to redraw the state’s map to include a second majority-Black district. But in an unusual move, a separate 5th Circuit panel granted a request from Landry to cancel the hearing.

Evans said the team anticipated such delay tactics from Louisiana Republicans.

“From the very beginning, their goal has been to delay and push us back another election cycle,” he said. “But I think the court saw through that today.”

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Josie Abugov is an undergraduate fellow at Harvard Magazine and the former editor-at-large of The Crimson’s weekly magazine, Fifteen Minutes. Abugov has previously interned for the CNN Documentary Unit...