BATON ROUGE – Louisiana lawmakers returned to the Capitol on Wednesday to redesign congressional maps that a federal judge threw out for violating the Voting Rights Act, resuming their work amid growing frustrations under a looming court deadline.
The Republican-dominated legislature and Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, have been fighting over the boundaries since February, when lawmakers approved a congressional map with white majorities in five of six districts. Democrats and the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus argue that the current map dilutes the political clout of African American voters and that at least two of the six districts should have Black majorities.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick struck down the adopted map and ordered the state to come up with a second majority Black district by June 20. Louisiana is nearly one-third Black.
“Members we did not get it right last session and we didn’t get it right in February, because if we did then we would not be back here,” Rep. Jason Hughes, a Democrat and member of the Black caucus, said on the House floor Wednesday afternoon.
Every 10 years state lawmakers — armed with new U.S. Census Bureau information — redraw political boundaries for seats in the U.S. House, state Senate, state House, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Public Service Commission. The process ultimately impacts which political parties, viewpoints and people control the government bodies that write laws, set utility rates and create public school policies.
While lawmakers passed new congressional maps in February, Edwards vetoed the maps. However, the legislature overrode the veto — marking the first time in nearly three decades that lawmakers refused to accept a governor’s refusal of a bill they had passed.
However, Dick’s ruling supported a second majority Black district and lawmakers were forced back to the drawing board.
“The evidence of Louisiana’s long and ongoing history of voting-related discrimination weighs heavily in favor of Plaintiffs,” Dick wrote in the ruling.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal briefly put a hold on Dick’s deadline, but removed that hold Sunday. The appeals court has scheduled arguments July 8 about the Dick’s ruling that the current map violates the Voting Rights Act.
“Some of our leaders in the legislature have said throughout this process, ‘We’ll just let the courts work it out,’” said Rep. Candace Newell, a Democrat and vice chair of the Black caucus. “Well, it has been worked out by the courts and the courts have ruled that the legislature must pass a map that has two minority-majority congressional district.”
As the special session began, GOP lawmakers continued showing support for boundaries passed in February.
House Speaker Clay Schexnayder called the session “premature and unnecessary until the legal process has played out.” He defended the congressional map as “fair and constitutional.”
“It concerns me that we are now being asked to redo in just five days something that we passed by over two-thirds of both bodies after a very long year of work,” Schexnayder told the House.
Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Slidell Republican and a leader in the remapping effort, has insisted that trying to include the state’s widely dispersed Black population in two separate congressional districts would result in two districts with very narrow Black majorities that could actually diminish Black voter power.
“We did the right thing,” Hewitt told the Senate on Wednesday. “We deliberated as a legislative body and passed a map. We did what we always do.”
Lawmaker's across the aisle vehemently disagreed.
“Members what we are seeing at this moment, unfortunately, are the lingering effects of slavery and Jim Crow,” Hughes said “But today, at this moment in time, we have an opportunity. You have a mandate to simply do the right thing.”
Louisiana’s population identified as nearly 56% white, more than 31% Black and nearly 7% Hispanic or Latino, according to latest census data. But some Democrats say lawmakers’ votes are not based on such data buth rather along party and racial lines.
“We get up here every day ... And we start off with prayer. And we talk about loving everybody. But when it’s time to vote, we don’t vote that way. We don’t vote like we love Blacks in this state,” said Rep. Denise Marcelle, a Democrat and member of the Black caucus.
Despite the deadline to complete the maps, the session began slowly with committees set to begin hearing map proposals Thursday and Friday.
Schexnayder and Senate President Page Cortez have requested an extension to complete the task until at least June 30. They said in a motion that the state Constitution and legislative rules make it impossible for a redistricting bill created in one chamber to be acted on in the other before a session’s seventh day unless rules are suspended.
They are scheduled to appear before judge Dick at a hearing Thursday.