WASHINGTON, D.C. — Next week, the Louisiana Legislature will begin a special session to handle several redistricting and election priorities including potential major changes to the state’s Supreme Court.
On Monday, newly sworn-in Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry (R) announced that the Louisiana Legislature will hold a special session from Jan. 15 to Jan. 23 to consider redrawing both the state’s congressional map and state Supreme Court districts. Landry’s executive order lists 14 priorities; four of which pertain to the state Supreme Court and two of which pertain to the congressional map.
Louisiana’s congressional map was struck down and must be redrawn.
The state’s congressional map must be redrawn due to a court order that found that the congressional map enacted in 2022 and used during the 2022 midterms likely violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. As a result of a recent court ruling, the Legislature is under a tight timeline — until Jan. 30 — to enact a new map or inform the court that it will not be enacting a new map.
A court did not order a new state Supreme Court map, but Landry has requested that the Legislature consider it.
Surprisingly, a new congressional map is not the only map drawing priority for this special session. Landry has also requested that the Legislature consider several changes to the state’s high court including:
- Legislation related to redistricting and elections of the Louisiana Supreme Court;
- Amendments to the Louisiana Constitution pertaining to the Supreme Court’s composition, number of justices, number of districts, method of electing justices and method of selecting a chief justice;
- Legislation for the implementation of the Louisiana Supreme Court redistricting changes and
- Funding for implementation of the changes to the state Supreme Court.
Louisiana’s Supreme Court justices are hopeful their proposed map would put the end to a federal lawsuit filed in 2019.
The Louisiana Supreme Court sent a letter at the end of last year requesting a new map. Five of the court’s seven members sent a letter to the Legislature requesting that the lawmakers draw new districts including one more additional majority-minority district.
In early 2019, the Louisiana NAACP and two Black voters filed a lawsuit against the state alleging that state’s Supreme Court districts violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by denying Black voters an equal opportunity to elect their candidate of choice. The parties in the case attempted to reach a settlement, but negotiations “reached an impasse” last summer. “We are hopeful the proposal will resolve the federal lawsuit,” the letter from a majority of the justices reads.
One justice on the court has vocally opposed his colleague’s request for a map that includes two majority-minority districts. At this point, it is unclear if the Republican-controlled Legislature will adopt the Louisiana Supreme Court’s desired map.
Louisiana’s Supreme Court districts have long been the subject of controversy and the state has been subject to a consent decree and court oversight for Supreme Court elections due to prior discrimination.
This year, a decades-long lawsuit was almost finally resolved after the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that the state still must abide by the rules set forth by a 1992 agreement requiring the state to:
- Create a temporary eighth seat (called the Chisom seat) on the Louisiana Supreme Court;
- Require the Louisiana Legislature to dissolve the controversial multi-member district and
- Ensure that the justice occupying the Chisom 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 district to complete their terms while also ensuring Louisiana’s Supreme Court districts complied with the Voting Rights Act. 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 she retired in 2020.
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. In October, the 5th Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision.
In a 2-1 decision authored by two judges appointed Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, the 5th Circuit held that the consent decree will remain in place as the lower court found that “the State had not shown that it was well-positioned to ensure future compliance with the Section 2 of the VRA and thus denied its motion to dissolve.”
Currently, the consent decree is still in place and the lawsuit is still ongoing as Republican officials have asked the entire 5th Circuit to rehear the decision upholding the consent decree.
Now, however, it is unclear if the Republican-controlled Legislature will adopt a new map that will also give Black voters the ability to elect a candidate of their choice in two state Supreme Court districts as opposed to one. With the status of the 2019 lawsuit still in flux and the Republican-led Legislature set to meet for only eight days, all eyes will be on the Bayou State next week.
Correction: This article previously stated that Louisiana Supreme Court justices wrote a letter to the state legislature seeking to resolve the decades-long Chisom lawsuit. That was incorrect. The state Supreme Court justices referenced a different lawsuit filed by the Louisiana NAACP in 2019.