LDF and cooperating Louisiana attorney, Ronald L. Wilson, filed a challenge under the Voting Rights Act and the U. S. Constitution to Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana’s 32nd Judicial District Court. A Black candidate has never been elected with opposition as a judge on this parish court. 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.
“For nearly two centuries, Terrebonne Parish has used at-large voting to maintain a racially segregated 32nd Judicial District Court,” said Ryan Haygood, Director of LDF’s Political Participation Group. “That system for electing judges has guaranteed that Black voters, in spite of having tried in election after election, cannot elect their judges of choice to this court. This lawsuit seeks to bring greater inclusion and democratic legitimacy to Terrebonne Parish’s political process through district-based voting.”
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.
“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.”
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.
“This case is about finally providing an opportunity for me and other voters of color in Terrebonne to elect judges who are both guided by fairness and are accountable to us,” said Jerome Bokyin, President of the Terrebonne Parish Branch NAACP, a Plaintiff in the lawsuit. “We simply have not had that in Terrebonne, as the suspension and subsequent re-election of a sitting judge, who publicly mocked Black people, clearly demonstrates.”
In 2004, the Louisiana Supreme Court, at Mr. Boykin’s urging, suspended a sitting judge on the 32nd Judicial District Court after that judge attended a Halloween party dressed as a prisoner, and wearing an orange prison jumpsuit and handcuffs, a black afro wig, and blackface makeup. A state body that investigated this incident determined that this judge’s portrayal of “African-Americans in a racially stereotypical manner . . . perpetuated the notion of African-Americans as both inferior and as criminals,” and “called into question . . . his ability to be fair and impartial toward African-Americans who appear before his court as defendants in criminal proceedings.” After his suspension, Terrebonne voters reelected that judge and he remains in office.
“The unfortunate reality is that, in Terrebonne Parish, the courthouse has been closed to Black candidates who aspire to serve as judges,” said LDF cooperating attorney Mr. Wilson. “We seek to fundamentally change that reality and to instill confidence in the 32nd Judicial District Court in this lawsuit.”