On Friday, August 21, lawyers for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), and cooperating Louisiana attorney, Ronald L. Wilson, filed papers in Terrebonne Parish Branch NAACP, et al. v. Jindal, et al., a challenge under the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution to Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana’s discriminatory voting method for the 32nd Judicial District Court (32nd JDC).
On behalf of the Terrebonne Parish Branch NAACP and four black voters, LDF asked a Louisiana federal court to rule that at-large voting for the 32nd JDC discriminates against black voters in Terrebonne. “Our case demonstrates that the at-large electoral method for the 32nd JDC silences the voices of black voters. As recently as 2008, this structure resulted in a white judge’s reelection even after he was suspended for wearing blackface in an apparent parody of black criminal defendants,” says Leah Aden, an LDF attorney. “Louisiana adopted at-large voting for the 32nd JDC, after the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to prevent black voters from electing their candidates of choice. Despite decades of advocacy against at-large voting in the district, Louisiana has continued to use this voting method and rejected numerous legislative proposals to change to district-based voting for the 32nd JDC,” continued Aden.
Terrebonne’s black voters seek an elected voice on the parish court, which has been closed to them for the 32nd JDC’s entire history. The voters are asking a federal district court to change the voting system from at-large to district-based voting, a method that Terrebonne uses for the Parish Council and Parish School Board elections and that is used to elect other bodies throughout Louisiana.
Under district-based voting, black voters would comprise the majority in one of five single-member districts for electing judges to the 32nd JDC.
Although black residents comprise 20% of Terrebonne’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 a contested election in the 32nd JDC because of the at-large electoral system.
White voters in Terrebonne overwhelmingly decline to cast their ballots for the candidates that black voters support. As a result, black candidates cannot win a parish-wide election under the current electoral system. “History shows that in Terrebonne and elsewhere in Louisiana, black candidates cannot win under at-large voting,” says Victorien Wu, an LDF attorney. “Regardless of the strength of their qualifications, whether they run as Democrats or Republicans, or whether they seek judicial or non-judicial office, a black candidate has never won a contested parish-wide election in Terrebonne.”
Over the last two decades, black candidates opposed by at least one white candidate have received an average of only 8% of white voter support, while receiving more than 87% of black voter support in Terrebonne’s at-large elections.
“This year, as we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, the crown jewel of the civil rights movement, Terrebonne voters are still fighting to ensure that their voices are represented in their judicial system,” says Jerome Boykin, President of the Terrebonne Parish Branch NAACP, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “After a half century, we still are struggling for representation for all voters at the ballot box.”
The district-based voting for the 32nd JDC that Plaintiffs seek in this case is common. Many judicial districts in Louisiana use district-based voting. For example, following similar litigation under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, districts surrounding Terrebonne, like the 16th Judicial District (which includes neighboring St. Martin and St. Mary parishes) and 23rd Judicial District (which includes neighboring Assumption Parish), now have districts that empower voters of color to elect their preferred candidates to their respective judicial bodies. Judicial candidates also are elected to the Louisiana Supreme Court, the highest state court, through district-based voting.
“Terrebonne’s outdated at-large voting scheme clearly illustrates the current need for the Voting Rights Act,” said Janai Nelson, Associate Director-Counsel at LDF. “The ability to elect your representatives is foundational to our democratic system. Terrebonne’s at-large system bars its black voters from exercising the full strength of their voting rights and must be replaced.”
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is the country’s first and foremost civil and human rights law firm. Founded in 1940 under the leadership of Thurgood Marshall, LDF’s mission has always been transformative: to achieve racial justice, equality, and an inclusive society. LDF’s victories established the foundations for the civil rights that all Americans enjoy today. In its first two decades alone, LDF undertook a coordinated legal assault against officially enforced public school segregation. This campaign culminated in Brown v. Board of Education, the unanimous landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1954 that overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine of legally sanctioned discrimination, widely known as Jim Crow.
LDF has been a separate organization from the NAACP since 1957. Please refer to us as “LDF.”