Monday, August 28, 2017

Court Strikes Down At-Large Judicial Elections in Louisiana

Terrebone Parish NAACP v. Jindal[i]

On August 17, 2017, a federal court ruled that a Louisiana Parish’s at-large voting system deprives black voters of an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the U. S. Constitution. The Plaintiffs are black voters residing in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, and the local NAACP chapter. They challenged Louisiana’s use of an at-large voting system for the 32nd Judicial District Court (32nd JCD), a state court that has jurisdiction over Terrebonne Parish. The challengers claimed that the use of at-large voting for elections to the 32nd JDC denied black voters an equal opportunity to participate in the process and elect their preferred candidates. They also claimed that a discriminatory purpose was the motivating factor in the maintenance of the at-large voting system.

In an at-large election system members of a governing body are elected to represent the entire population of a district. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits voting practices that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or ethnicity. Vote dilution occurs when a minority group is submerged in a larger population and is unable to elect their preferred candidates as a result of racially polarized voting.

Although Black residents constitute 20 percent of Terrebonne's population, no black candidate has ever been elected to the 32nd JDC in a contested election. The evidence showed that voting in Terrebonne is polarized along racial lines. White voters consistently refuse to support the candidates favored by black voters. Black voters have been unable to elect their preferred candidates. For more than two decades, lawyers, citizens and civil rights organizations advocated for legislation to provide black voters with an equal opportunity to elect their candidates of choice. However, Louisiana lawmakers consistently rejected their proposals.

This was a textbook case of vote dilution. In a lengthy and in-depth ruling the court “found a strong case of vote dilution.” The court observed that “no [B]lack candidate who has faced opposition in Terrebonne has been elected to an at-large position, and [B]lack candidates have received incredibly minimal support from white voters, a pattern which has been consistent over the course of more than twenty years.” The court determined that “a motivating purpose in maintaining the at-large electoral scheme for the 32nd JDC was to limit the opportunity of [B]lack individuals to participate meaningfully and effectively in the political process to elect judges of their choice.” The court also wrote “the persistent advocacy of the [B]lack community [for a majority-Black single-member district], and the equally persistent opposition to this advocacy which was partially based on justifications that do not seem completely legitimate.”

“[The] victory is an example of what can be accomplished when Black communities in partnership with civil rights groups like LDF and other advocates defend our country’s core democratic values," said Victorien Wu, an Assistant Counsel at Legal Defense Fund. “On behalf of Black communities, LDF will continue to challenge voting practices that serve to weaken, discourage, or deny people of their fundamental right to vote.” This is one of several cases that shows discriminatory voting practices persist. They are not a relic of some distant past as Chief Justice John Roberts disingenuously claimed in Shelby v. Holder which struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Race discrimination is alive and well in the electoral process.

[i] Leland Ware, Louis L. Redding Professor of Law & Public Policy, University of Delaware

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