Political lines are set, but not yet solid - Justice Department must sign off on Louisiana's new districts, which have been challenged by the Legislative Black Caucus

Times-Picayune, The (New Orleans, LA) - Friday, April 15, 2011
Author: Bill Barrow and Ed Anderson Staff writers

As the dust cleared Thursday from a brutal post-census special session, Gov. Bobby Jindal signed legislation creating new maps for Louisiana's congressional, legislative and Public Service Commission districts, setting the stage for civil rights lawyers at the U.S. Justice Department to review their revisions for the effects on minority voters. 

The Legislative Black Caucus, meanwhile, announced that it will ask federal authorities not to approve plans that black lawmakers say do not adequately protect and enhance the voting strength of nonwhite voters who account for 34.3 percent of Louisiana's registered voter rolls. 

"We have worked hard to ensure that the state's citizens' voting power was not diluted," the caucus said in a statement. "Despite our efforts, we believe the process was conducted in a manner that diminished minority voters' ability to select a candidate of their choice." 

The statement said Jindal and the Legislature decided to put "partisanship and incumbent protection" over compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

Administration aides, legislative leaders and the sponsors of the redistricting bills -- all of them white -- said at the close of the session that they are satisfied that the plans will meet constitutional muster. The major bones of contention are whether the state House plan should have included a 30th majority nonwhite district, whether the Senate map's new majority nonwhite districts avoid gerrymandering concerns, and whether the congressional plan should include a second minority district or at least another district with more minority voter strength. 

As it stands, the House plan has 29 majority African-American districts, up from the current 27. The Senate map has 11 majority African-American jurisdictions, up from 10, though Senate President Joel Chaisson II, D-Destrehan, acknowledged during the session that the irregular shapes of two new districts resulted in no small part from efforts to protect neighboring incumbents. 

The U.S. House plan, which realigned the existing seven districts into six, maintains just one majority African-American district and makes black voters no more than a third of any remaining district. With a threatened veto from Jindal hovering over the process, lawmakers rejected versions that would have either added a second majority nonwhite district or made black voters account for as much as 42 percent of the electorate in one north Louisiana jurisdiction. 

Ready for Justice review 

Chaisson and House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Algiers, said they hope to submit their chambers' respective plans to the Justice Department in the coming weeks. Attorney General Buddy Caldwell will be responsible for submitting the congressional map. Justice lawyers typically have up to 60 days from receipt to make a decision. If they reject the plan, they will return to the Legislature with their reasons, giving lawmakers another chance. 

A best-case scenario is a swift approval. The worst-case scenario, at least for the legislative maps, is that the Legislature cannot craft a federally approved version in time for the Oct. 22 elections. That could result in a federal judge or federally appointed "master" drawing the lines. It also could mean postponement of the elections. 

The Legislature has more breathing room with the congressional plan, as those offices aren't on the ballot until next year. 

Louisiana is one of the states that, based on an established history of voter discrimination and intimidation, must submit its new maps and any other election law changes for federal approval before they can take effect. Broadly speaking, voting rights lawyers judge whether plans have either a "discriminatory purpose" or a "discriminatory effect." 

Section Five of the Voting Rights Act prohibits "retrogression," or reducing the strength of minority voters. It is this provision that ensured the 2nd Congressional District would continue to be a majority African-American district even though it required extending the lines to Baton Rouge to pick up enough population after the post-flood losses in Orleans and Jefferson parishes. 

Section Two of the act is the trickier proposition. Some legislative lawyers and many Democrats said the provisions compel legislators to craft, wherever possible, new minority districts or at least jurisdictions with enhanced minority voting strength. But many of the same attorneys and lawmakers noted that the law does not require maximizing the number of actual minority representatives. Other lawmakers hammered the fact that federal courts have frowned on racial gerrymandering. 

Acadiana carved up 

Despite his stated confidence, Tucker, the Republican House speaker, more than once noted that 2011 marks the first time since the Voting Rights Act was adopted that a Democratic administration will preside over the redistricting review. "No one knows what that means," he said before the March 20 opening gavel for the three-week special session. 

Besides continuing to divide minority voting influence in north Louisiana, the congressional plan also splits several geographic regions. Parishes from Orleans to East Baton Rouge were divided to help craft the 2nd District, though that did not raise complaints. St. Landry, Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, meanwhile, were partitioned over the ardent protests of their representatives and senators. 

Freshman U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry, whose existing 3rd Congressional District was carved into pieces, said Thursday that he was particularly disappointed for the Houma-Thibodaux region. He declined, however, to blame Jindal or his colleagues, whose insistence on vertical north Louisiana districts yielded several proposals that always split at least one and often two major regions among Acadiana, the capital region, the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain or Terrebonne-Lafourche. 

Landry declined to say whether he would run for re-election against U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, in the new 3rd District that is tilted to Boustany's base. 

Boon for incumbents 

The end game, University of Louisiana-Lafayette political scientist Pearson Cross said, was to protect incumbents. "They (lawmakers) knew they were going to lose one (member of the delegation)," he said. "They did what they had to do to protect" the rest. 

Nonetheless, U.S. Reps. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, and Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, will introduce themselves to new voters in coastal parishes that are now in Landry's district. Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond also must campaign upriver, though his district remains anchored in Orleans and Jefferson. 

Cross gave props to the Legislature for at least coming up with a plan in the waning hours of the session when five of the seven members of the delegation asked Jindal to intervene and delay the drawing of the congressional districts. 

"This (task) is left to the Legislature" every decade, Cross said. "The Legislature has enough hanging over it ... without having the governor and his staff ... threaten a veto." 

University of New Orleans political scientist Daniel Lewis said the session was a win for the Republican Party. Referring to the failed reorientation of the north Louisiana districts, he said, "(Jindal) doesn't want to be the one to turn one Democratic seat into two."