Black Caucus challenges House redistricting plan - Justice Department urged to dismiss it

Times-Picayune, The (New Orleans, LA) - Saturday, May 14, 2011
Author: Ed Anderson Capital bureau

BATON ROUGE -- The Legislative Black Caucus and three civil rights organizations Friday called on the U.S. Justice Department to reject the House redistricting plan drawn at a recent special session. 

Joining the caucus in signing a letter opposing the plan were the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. 

The proposal increases the number of House minority districts from 27 to 29, but most caucus members say a 30th district -- and possibly more -- could have been created. 

"We believe the (redistricting) process was conducted in a manner that diminished minority voters' ability to select a candidate of their choice," said Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, the chairwoman of the caucus. "We were disheartened ... that Gov. Bobby Jindal and members of the Legislature decided that partisanship and incumbent protection were more important than complying with the (federal) Voting Rights Act of 1965." 

The objection by the groups focuses mainly on the possible creation of an African-American district in the Shreveport area.

Smith said she expects a challenge also will be filed to the Senate plan, which increased the number of "majority minority districts" from 10 to 11 by creating a new one running through central and north Louisiana. 

Smith said an evaluation of the state's congressional redistricting plan is under way, and a challenge may also be filed with the Justice Department. 

House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Algiers, said he is confident his House redistricting plan will get the green light from Justice. If Justice sends the plan back for modification or rejects it while lawmakers are in session, bills have been filed to take up the issue at the present general session that runs through June 23. 

Under federal law, the state must get Justice Department approval before it can implement changes in voting hours, districts and other election-related matters to avoid diluting minority voting strength. 

In the 11-page letter to the Justice Department, the four groups said the state failed "to meet its burden showing that the proposed House plan was adopted free of discriminatory purpose. Our assessment of the process leading up to the adoption of (the plan) indicates that the proposed redistricting plan was calculated to minimize black voting strength in the northwest region of the state." 

A House committee created a 30th minority district in the Shreveport area, but the House, at the request of a white and an African-American lawmaker from the area, got the number reduced to 29. 

Rep. Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport, who is African-American, said the creation of the fourth district in the area would "destroy the core" of her district and lower its minority population. Her district is 89 percent minority under Tucker's plan. 

The letter said the minority populations in the four minority Shreveport districts would have ranged from 61.7 percent to 71.7 percent, enough to allow a minority to be elected. 

Republican Rep. Alan Seabaugh, the white Shreveport lawmaker who objected to the change, said the 30th black majority district would hurt the "non-minority voting power" in Shreveport.