Civil rights activists in New Orleans, who have been fighting for decades to ensure Black representation on the state’s highest court, scored a major victory last week when a federal appeals court rejected a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Jeff Landry seeking to toss out and redraw the first and only Black-majority Louisiana Supreme Court voting district.

A three-member panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans voted 2-1 against Landry’s attempt to dissolve a 1992 consent decree that created a majority-Black  judicial district and instituted continuing federal oversight over the Supreme Court elections. The district now includes most of New Orleans and a portion of Jefferson Parish. 

Prior to the decree, there had never been a Black state Supreme Court Justice. Afterwards, three have been elected: Revius O. Ortique, Jr., Bernette Johnson, who retired as the first Black chief justice, and her successor and current justice Piper D. Griffin. In 2012, Johnson intervened in the long-running case that resulted in the consent decree when she successfully sued to become chief justice.

“Anytime civil rights activists win before the Fifth Circuit it’s worthy of us celebrating,” said Alaizah Koorji, assistant counsel with the Legal Defense Fund, which argued on behalf of the consent decree before the appeals court. “Sometimes the cases are just so egregious that, no matter the judicial body, they see our side. We were really worried that we would go right back to where we started.”

Landry, who was elected the state’s next governor in October, argued in a 2021 motion to dissolve the consent decree that since it achieved its purpose of electing a Black justice, it was no longer necessary. He added that the voting districts created by the consent decree needed to be redrawn as they are no longer equitable due to changing population numbers. The New Orleans district has about 189,000 fewer residents than what would be ideal for equal representation,  he argued in his motion.

In an Oct. 25 opinion, the 5th Circuit judges rejected both arguments, stating that Landry failed to make the case that the circumstances that led to the 1992 legal agreement would not be repeated should it be lifted. 

The ruling upheld a May 2022 decision by U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, who found that.the attorney general did not show the state is committed to ensuring that a “Black opportunity district will be maintained in the future … or that the vestiges of past discrimination have been eliminated.”

Nora Ahmed, legal director for the ACLU of Louisiana, which represents Johnson, said the court’s ruling is a victory for the people of Louisiana and a defeat for those arguing that the state is in a “post-racial” era.

“We were able to show the court the power of allowing the Black population to have a voice on that court, which was of paramount importance,” Ahmed said. “When you remove a dissenting voice, then it appears as though everybody is in agreement and acquiesces to the status quo.”

Old system diluted Black voting power

The consent decree settled a 1986 lawsuit filed by Black New Orleanians, including civil rights activist Ronald Chisom, and the Urban League of Louisiana who alleged that the district maps at the time violated  the Voting Rights Act by intentionally diluting the power of Black voters in New Orleans.. 

At the time, the seven Supreme Court justices were voted into office by voters in  six judicial districts, one of which elected two justices. That district included New Orleans, which was then and is still majority-Black, and the majority white parishes of Jefferson, St. Bernard, and Plaquemines.

The decree created seven new voting districts, one of which was composed mainly of New Orleans voters.

Morgan pointed out in her ruling that when the court asked Landry if the state would be free to redraw the districts in such a way that a Black candidate could not win a seat on the court should the consent decree be dissolved, he essentially responded in the affirmative.  

“If you dissolve an injunction, that injunction is no longer binding,” Landry told the court, according to Morgan’s ruling. “I don’t think if the legislature is going to truly reapportion the districts that they can be bound or committed to making any one parish any particular kind of district. If the legislature goes forward with reapportionment and this case is dissolved, then the result that Your Honor described is the result.”

Landry argued that if Black residents felt newly created districts were discriminatory and violated the Voting Rights Act, they could file another lawsuit.

“It’s not really comforting for civil rights activists and black voters to hear, ‘Well, you could always just bring a fresh case.’ We were baffled that they said that on the record,” Koorji said.

Fifth Circuit judges Jacques Wiener and Carl Stewart voted against Landry’s motion, with Judge Kurt Engelhardt offering a dissent in favor of the governor-elect. Engelhardt slammed the other judges, accusing them of making it impossible for the state to exit the consent decree by moving the “proverbial goal posts … beyond sight.”

“The Voting Rights Act is truly ‘the law of the land,’” Engelhardt wrote, but “it can and will be invoked by anyone aggrieved by a perceived violation.”

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Before coming to Verite, Richard A. Webster spent the past two and a half years as a member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. He investigated allegations of abuse against the Jefferson Parish...