by Leah Aden, Assistant Counsel, Political Participation Group, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund
* Ms. Aden is a member of the litigation team in Terrebonne Parish Branch NAACP et al. v. Jindal et al.
Last week, nearly 60 years after the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc’s (LDF) client, Autherine Lucy, sought to become the first Black student to integrate the University of Alabama, LDF and cooperating Louisiana attorney Ronald L. Wilson filed a federal lawsuit to empower Black voters in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana to elect their candidates of choice for the 32nd Judicial District Court for the first time in the Parish’s history.
The lawsuit, Terrebonne Parish Branch NAACP et al. v. Jindal et al., filed on behalf of the Terrebonne Parish Branch NAACP and several Black voters in Terrebonne, challenges the Parish’s at-large method of electing judges for this state court as a violation of the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution.
For nearly two centuries, Terrebonne Parish has used at-large voting to maintain a racially segregated 32nd Judicial District Court. That system for electing judges has guaranteed that Black voters, in spite of having tried in election after election, cannot elect their judges of choice for this court. As a result, a Black candidate has never been elected as a judge on the 32nd Judicial District Court. Meanwhile, a sitting judge on this parish court has been suspended for wearing blackface, an orange prison jumpsuit, handcuffs, and an afro wig to a Halloween party as part of his offensive parody of a Black prison inmate.
This lawsuit seeks to bring greater inclusion and democratic legitimacy to Terrebonne Parish’s political process through district-based voting. For too long, at-large voting, in combination with racial bloc voting, has functioned as a structural wall of exclusion to this parish court. Although Black voters comprise nearly 20 percent of the Parish’s voting-age population, and consistently vote together in parish-wide elections, the at-large electoral method dilutes their cohesive vote for their preferred candidates of choice.
For example, in a 2004 election for the 32nd Judicial District Court, the sole Black candidate, who ran against five white candidates, lost to a white candidate after receiving more than 72 percent of support from Black voters, but just 1 percent of the votes cast by white voters. In 2011, a Black candidate for tax assessor, who ran against three white candidates, also lost to a white candidate after receiving more than 70 percent of support from Black voters, but only 2.5 percent of the votes cast by white voters. In the 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections, President Obama received near-unanimous support at 98.0 percent from Black voters in Terrebonne, but in both elections received less than 14 percent of the votes cast by white voters in the Parish. Terrebonne’s at-large voting system essentially guarantees these results.
Absent this litigation, plaintiffs and other Black voters in Terrebonne have little ability to change their treatment as second-class citizens under this at-large system. Since the 1990s, Plaintiff Terrebonne Parish Branch NAACP, in particular, has advocated for legislation that would change the discriminatory at-large electoral method for the 32nd Judicial District Court.
Legislation to adopt district-based voting, the remedy sought in the instant litigation, which would divide the five-member court into five districts, one of which would be a majority-Black opportunity district, has failed. Legislation to add an additional seat on the five-member court, in which that sixth district would be elected by a majority-Black voting-age population, also has failed. Advocacy to create another seat on the Houma City Court that has parish-wide jurisdiction, which would be elected by a district with a majority-Black voting-age population, likewise has been unsuccessful.
Fortunately, Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act prohibits precisely the type of discriminatory voting measure challenged by this action. Section 2, which has been applied to judicial elections following LDF’s successful litigation in Chisom v. Roemer, has opened electoral opportunity for Black candidates throughout Louisiana’s court system, including the Louisiana Supreme Court, various state appeals courts, and numerous state district courts like the 16th and 23rd judicial districts that include parishes neighboring Terrebonne. In this case, we are asking the Court to adopt district-based voting for the 32nd Judicial District Court, with at least one district in which Black voters are the majority of the voting-age population, so that Black voters will finally have an opportunity to elect their preferred candidates.
Moreover, we argue in this lawsuit that the resistance to progress and maintenance of a discriminatory voting system reflects the discriminatory purpose underlying at-large voting in Terrebonne. Thus, in addition to seeking district voting as remedial relief in this action, plaintiffs seek to bail-in Terrebonne Parish under Section 3(c) of the Voting Rights Act, and require the Parish to pre-clear all voting changes related to the 32nd Judicial District Court before their implementation to ensure that they are free from discriminatory purpose or effect.
Nearly 60 years after Ms. Lucy broke the color line, and nearly 50 years after Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Act’s protections are required now more than ever in places like Terrebonne Parish, where the courthouse has been closed to Black voters who aspire to elect their candidates of choice for the 32nd Judicial District Court. It is long past time to open up the democratic process, and let all voices be heard in Terrebonne Parish.