by Victorien Wu, Fried Frank Fellow, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.
*This post is part of ACSblog’s 2015 Constitution Day Symposium.
The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution hold the promise of equal political citizenship for Black voters. Yet, this commitment remains unfulfilled in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, where, in 2008, a white sitting judge of the parish court, Judge Timothy Ellender of the 32nd Judicial District Court (“32nd JDC”), was reelected to a six-year term without having to face opposition, even after he was suspended by the Louisiana Supreme Court in 2004 for attending a Halloween party wearing blackface, an orange prison jumpsuit, handcuffs, and an afro wig in an apparent parody of Black criminal defendants who appeared before him.
The reelection of Judge Ellender to his seat in 2008 was made possible by the discriminatory method of election that the state of Louisiana uses for the 32nd JDC. Each of the five judges of that court is elected at-large from the parish, meaning that all voters in the parish can cast a ballot in electing each of the five judges. However, Black voters constitute a minority of the electorate (at 20 percent), and voting in Terrebonne is deeply polarized along racial lines. In seven elections that were conducted at large in Terrebonne between 1993 and 2014 and that featured at least one Black candidate and at least one white candidate, Black candidates preferred by the Black community received an average of 87 percent of Black voter support, but an average of only 8 percent of white voter support.
As a consequence, under at-large voting in Terrebonne, the preferred candidates of Black voters have been consistently defeated, regardless of whether the candidate has run as a Democrat, as a Republican or otherwise. For example, in the 1994 election for the 32nd JDC, Anthony Lewis, a Democrat and the only Black candidate, received about 73 percent of Black voter support, but only 1 percent of white voter support, thus losing the election. Reflecting the same dynamic 20 years later, in the 2014 election for the Houma City Court, another court in the parish, Cheryl Carter, a Republican and the only Black candidate, received about 85 percent of Black voter support, but only 8 percent of white voter support. As a result, she too lost the election.