Lawsuit filed in federal court in 1986 by Black voters in Louisiana against the Louisiana governor, secretary of state and commissioner of elections. The original complaint alleged that the method used to elect the seven justices of the Louisiana Supreme Court violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). At the time, two justices were elected from one multi-member district in New Orleans and the remaining five justices were elected from single-member districts. The plaintiffs alleged that this method violated the VRA because it diluted the voting strength of Black voters, but the district court sided with the state and ruled the election system did not violate the VRA. On appeal, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Section 2 of the VRA did not apply to judicial elections. Eventually, the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1991 that state judicial elections are protected under Section 2. The Court sent the case back down to the 5th circuit.
In 1992, the parties entered into a consent decree (an agreement) to ensure Louisiana’s state Supreme Court elections did not violate Section 2. Specifically, the 1992 consent decree “required the State to: (1) create a temporary eighth seat (the Chisom seat) on the Louisiana Supreme Court; and (2) ensure that the justice occupying that seat was an equal member of the Louisiana Supreme Court.” The Chisom seat was a remedy that allowed the justices who were elected from the now-defunct multi-member districts to complete their terms while also ensuring Louisiana’s Supreme Court districts complied with the VRA. The consent decree allowed Orleans Parish, a majority-Black area, to add an additional seat to its appellate court; the person who was elected to this seat was also “assigned” to serve on the Louisiana Supreme Court as a “temporary” eighth justice. Importantly, this consent decree led to Louisiana electing its first Black Supreme Court justice, Revius Ortique Jr., in 1992. In 1997, the Chisom seat was dissolved after legislation created a majority-minority Supreme Court district in Orleans Parish, but the consent decree still remained in effect. In 2012, Justice Bernette Johnson asked the federal district court to reopen the case when her colleagues on the Louisiana Supreme Court would not count her time in the Chisom seat toward her tenure in order for her to become chief justice. The district court granted her request to enforce the consent decree and Johnson served as chief justice until 2020 when she retired.
In 2021, the state moved to dissolve the consent decree. In May 2022, the district court declined to grant this request after finding that the consent decree was still necessary “to ensure compliance with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.” The state appealed this decision to the 5th Circuit, which held oral argument on March 6, 2023. Litigation is ongoing.
Case Documents (District court)
Case Documents (5th circuit)
Case Documents (U.s. Supreme Court)