On February 3, 2014, LDF filed a lawsuit under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments seeking to vindicate the fundamental right to vote for Black voters in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Terrebonne Parish Branch NAACP and four individual Black voters, after six unsuccessful legislative attempts and other advocacy over nearly 30 years to change the voting method in the district.
Although Black residents comprise 20 percent of Terrebonne Parish’s population, are geographically concentrated within the Parish, and consistently vote together to attempt to elect candidates of their choice, no Black candidate has ever been elected in the face of opposition to the 32nd Judicial District Court under the at-large system of election.
For more than 15 years, Plaintiff Terrebonne Parish Branch NAACP has advocated for the adoption of district-based voting to elect candidates to the 32nd Judicial District Court. Most recently, in 2011, the Terrebonne Parish NAACP urged the Louisiana legislature to adopt a fair method of electing judges to that court. That and other efforts to urge the state legislature to expand democracy in Terrebonne Parish failed.
Given that white voters in the Parish overwhelmingly do not vote for candidates that Black voters support, Black candidates facing opposition cannot win a parish-wide election under the current electoral system. For example, in 1994, a Black candidate lost an election for the 32nd Judicial District Court after receiving substantial support (72 percent) from Black voters in Terrebonne, but securing just 1 percent of the vote from white voters in the Parish. That candidate lost the election to a white candidate. In another election in 2011, a Black candidate for tax assessor received more than 70 percent of support from Black voters in Terrebonne, but only 2.5 percent of the votes cast by white voters in the Parish. That candidate also ultimately lost the election to a white candidate. The Parish’s current at-large system of electing judges essentially guarantees these results.
After an eight-day bench trial in March and April of 2017, the court issued a ruling in favor of Black residents who seek an opportunity to elect a judge of their choice to the state trial court bench, upholding both claims that at-large elections for the judge produce discriminatory results, violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, and have been maintained for a discriminatory purpose in violation of that statue and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.
However, on June 30, 2020, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision in the case, ruling against Black residents who sought an opportunity to elect a judge of their choice to the trial court bench. On July 13, 2020, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) filed a petition for a rehearing en banc.
As the petition details, a panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals erroneously reached the merits of the case before determining a jurisdictional issue and also erred by discounting and ignoring substantial proof of racial discrimination in Terrebonne elections. This includes an incident where a sitting judge on the court has been suspended for wearing blackface, an orange prison jumpsuit, handcuffs, and an afro wig to a Halloween party as part of his offensive parody of a Black prison inmate. Under the discriminatory at-large electoral method, that judge subsequently was re-elected.
“Terrebonne Parish must open the political process and provide avenues of voting opportunity for all of its citizens,” said Leah Aden, LDF Assistant Counsel. “Louisianans have elected a number of Black judges on other Louisiana courts, including the Louisiana Supreme Court, from single-member districts. It is past time for Terrebonne Parish to stop resisting progress and end its discriminatory voting system.”
Read Plaintiffs’ briefs regarding Special Master’s Report and Recommended Remedy here and here.
Read Special Master Report and Recommended Remedy.