Today, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (“LDF”) urged the Louisiana State Legislature to adopt House Bill 582 which would provide all voters an equal opportunity to elect judges of their choice by creating a fair election system for the Thirty-Second Judicial District in Terrebonne Parish.
The current at-large system denies African-American voters, who make up nearly 20 percent of the parish’s population, an equal opportunity to elect the candidates of their choice to the court. Although judicial districts are not bound by the constitutional requirement of one-person, one-vote, they are subject to Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Under the Voting Rights Act, the state must ensure that minority voters have an equal access to the political process. House Bill 582 would create a reasonably compact majority-minority election section that would establish a fair method of election that provides African American voters in the parish an equal opportunity to elect a judicial candidate of their choice.
House Bill 582 is consistent with previous efforts by the Louisiana State Legislature to resolve concerns of vote dilution within the state judiciary. In 2005, the Louisiana State Legislature passed Act 261 following litigation brought under the Voting Rights Act in Williams v. McKeithen, No. (E.D. La. 2005). In the suit, LDF alleged that the at-large scheme for electing judges to the Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals diluted the voting strength of African Americans in Jefferson Parish. The legislature’s corrective action resolved the discrimination at issue in the lawsuit.
Moreover, House Bill 582 is particularly important given the recent history of racial insensitivity experienced by African-American voters in the Thirty-Second Judicial District. In 2003, Timothy Ellender, a judge currently serving on the Thirty-Second Judicial District, appeared at a Halloween party wearing blackface makeup, an afro wig, handcuffs, and a prison jumpsuit. The Judiciary Commission of Louisiana determined that Judge Ellender portrayed African Americans in a racially stereotypical manner that perpetuated the notion of African-American men as both inferior and as criminals. The Commission also found that Judge Ellender’s conduct called into question his ability to be fair and impartial towards African-Americans who appear before his court. Despite calls for his resignation, Judge Ellender was suspended a mere six months for the incident.
Kristen Clarke, Co-Director of LDF’s Political Participation Group observed that “a discriminatory election system along with recent racially-charged events underscore the need for a more representative court system in Terrebonne Parish. House Bill 582 can help ensure that African-American voters have an equal opportunity to elect judges of their choice to serve on the bench.”