Fourteen years ago this week, a white sitting judge in Louisiana’s Terrebonne Parish attended a Halloween party at a public restaurant dressed as a prisoner in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs, wearing an Afro wig and blackface makeup. His wife accompanied him, clad as a cop. After local NAACP leaders filed a complaint, district judge Timothy Ellender was suspended by the Louisiana Supreme Court in 2004 after a state investigation determined the judge’s actions “perpetuated the notion of African-Americans as both inferior and as criminals” while questioning Ellender’s “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 Ellender, far from surprising in an at-large election system where white voters made up close to 80 percent of the electorate and commonly vote as a bloc in open primaries for five judicial seats in the southeastern Louisiana parish. Given that such racialized dynamics have made it virtually impossible for Black voters to elect a judicial candidate of their choice, in February 2014, the Terrebonne Parish Branch NAACP filed a lawsuit in federal district court to “eliminate a voting practice that was enacted and/or has been maintained with a discriminatory purpose, and that dilutes the voting strength of Black voters in Terrebonne Parish.” In August 2017 they won a historic decision, leaving it up to the state legislature to ultimately determine a viable redistricting plan that more equitably represents African-Americans when it convenes next year.
At least, that’s what is expected. However, the defendants in the lawsuit — Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards and Attorney General Jeff Landry — recently initiated appeals to prevent the remedial process, each retaining lawyers to do so. Landry has created controversy with his hiring of attorney Jason Torchinsky from the Virginia-based Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky, a firm currently beingsued by a voting rights group in North Carolina for making false and defamatory claims of voter fraud, and the subject of a recent related complaint of unprofessional conduct with the North Carolina State Bar.
“Both the governor and the attorney general have filed a notice of appeal in the Fifth Circuit, the appellate court over Louisiana, and we have moved to dismiss their notice because we think it’s premature for them to be appealing the district court’s ruling,” said Leah Aden, senior counsel for the Legal Defense Fund, which represented the local NAACP chapter in their challenge to the at-large system in federal court. Aden explained that congressional statutes stipulate certain eventsare supposed to happen prior to such an appellate process and those events have yet to take place, but the defendants are nonetheless appealing in an attempt to salvage the current voting arrangement.
“They are basically arguing that the court’s ruling has the practical effect of stopping at-large voting from happening,” said Aden, contending that “is not a strong argument.” In the interest of judicial resources and a more thorough legal process, continued Aden, “The parties should be allowed to move toward the remedial proceeding and the court should enter a judgment and order a remedy.That is the appropriate time to bring an appeal.”
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