Arguments on deal that put Black justice on Louisiana court
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A 1992 federal court agreement that led to a Black justice being elected to Louisiana’s once all-white Supreme Court is no longer needed and should be dissolved, an assistant to the state’s attorney general told a federal appeals court Monday.
The case pits Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry, who is running for governor, against voting rights advocates and the U.S. Justice Department. Former state Chief Justice Bernette Johnson has also filed briefs opposing Landry’s position, as has term-limited Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who leaves office next year.
Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Murrill told the appellate judges the agreement, which effectively maintains federal court oversight over a state Supreme Court election process, is no longer needed.
“There is nothing that remains to be done,” Murrill said, noting the agreement has resulted in a seat on the high court being held by a Black judge for the past three decades. They include current Justice Piper Griffin, who began a 10-year term.
Judge Carl Stewart noted voting rights activists’ fears that, in absence of the agreement, the state could revert to a system that divides New Orleans and again dilutes Black voting power.
“It’s possible,” Murrill said. “Is it likely? It’s highly unlikely.” Even without the agreement, she said, the state would be bound by federal voting law and its own laws enacted to comply with the agreement. Landry’s office has also noted there was no attempt in a redistricting session last year to do away with the existing mostly Black district.
Attorneys for the original plaintiffs in the voting rights case and the U.S. Justice Department said the state has presented no evidence to show it would not revert to old voting patterns that denied Black voters representation on the state’s highest court.
“There is no map, there is not data,” argued attorney Leah Aden.
Opponents of Landry’s motion also argue that evidence of racially polarized voting remains. As evidence, they note the Legislature’s refusal last year to add a second mostly Black district to Louisiana’s congressional map — despite Black voters now making up nearly a third of the state’s population. A legal challenge to that case is pending, with the results likely hinging on a U.S. Supreme Court decision in an Alabama case.
The case involving the Louisiana Supreme Court agreement could also wind up at the U.S. Supreme Court. Monday’s arguments were heard by a panel of three judges on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal: Jacques Wiener, nominated to the court by President George H.W. Bush; Stewart, nominated by President Bill Clinton; and Kurt Engelhardt, nominated by President Donald Trump. There was no indication when they would rule.
U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan last year refused to dissolve the agreement, referred to as a consent judgment or consent decree. In her 24-page ruling last May, Morgan said Landry’s office provided no proof that discriminatory election practices won’t return if the agreement is dissolved.
Edwards’ attorneys did not take part in Monday’s arguments but agreed with Morgan in briefs.
“Without the consent decree in effect, the legislature would be free to reinstate districts which have the effect of abridging citizens’ right to vote for their candidates of choice,” Edwards’ brief said.
The 1992 agreement settled a 1986 lawsuit brought by activist Ronald Chisom and others. They had argued that Black voting strength was diluted under the old system — five justices were elected from single-member districts around the state, but two were elected from one district that included majority-Black New Orleans and surrounding mostly white parishes.
The complicated 1992 settlement ensured no sitting justice was removed. It established a new Supreme Court district comprised solely of majority Black New Orleans, to be filled once there was a vacancy. In the interim, it added a temporary eighth seat to the high court — the so-called Chisom seat — filled by a judge who was in fact elected to a slot on a New Orleans-based state appeal court.
The deal led to Revius Ortique being the first Black elected to serve on the Louisiana Supreme Court Justice, and the election of two Black successors — Johnson, who retired in 2020, followed by Griffin, who began her 10-year term in 2021.