Home Part of States Newsroom
News
Power struggle shelves new Louisiana Supreme Court districts in Legislature

Share

Power struggle shelves new Louisiana Supreme Court districts in Legislature

Feb 27, 2024 | 6:14 pm ET
By Greg LaRose
Share
Power struggle shelves new Louisiana Supreme Court districts in Legislature
Description
Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice John Weimer, left, and Associate Justice Piper Griffin make their way Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024, to the steps of the State Capitol for the inauguration ceremony of Gov. Jeff Landry. (Matthew Hinton/AP Photo, Pool)

A legislative committee tossed aside a map Tuesday that would create a second majority-Black seat on the Louisiana Supreme Court, setting up another showdown over the boundaries in the regular legislative session that begins next month. 

The vote would appear, on the surface, to reject the addition of an additional minority justice. But a deeper look reveals an intense, political battle that involves the governor, attorney general, lawmakers and sitting justices. 

Associate Justice Piper Griffin is the only Black person and the only woman on the bench. She and the other six justices have voiced support for adding a second majority-Black district to the court. Most lawmakers agree minorities are underrepresented among its justices, but how to fix that problem is where the parties differ and power politics takes over.

Court challenges over election boundaries are familiar territory in Louisiana, where congressional districts and legislative seats are currently being challenged. Black voters have argued their voices have not been fairly represented in maps that legislators have approved

Attorney General Liz Murrill told Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee members Tuesday they needed to approve House Bill 22 for the state to avoid at least $10 million in legal costs. The NAACP sued the state in federal court five years ago to add minority representation to the court. Unlike congressional, legislative and other district-based seats, the Louisiana Legislature isn’t compelled to redraw boundaries for the state Supreme Court every 10 years. As a result, changes to the districts have been extremely seldom and only through court action. 

Murrill agreed to a settlement in the NAACP case that includes the map in House Bill 22, sponsored by House Speaker Pro Tempore Mike Johnson, R-Pineville.

“I have signed the settlement because I believe it is a good settlement,” Murrill said. “It does not cost us attorneys’ fees. It dismisses the case. It does not require any ongoing or linked or future supervision, and it’s a good map.”

Murrill told committee members the new map needed to be in place by mid-May so state election officials could prepare ballots for the fall when voters in the Supreme Court’s new majority-Black 2nd District would choose a justice. Qualifying for fall will take place July 17-19.

Senators pushed back on the attorney general’s calls for urgency and balked at their inability to make changes to boundaries she had already signed off on. Sen. Greg Miller, R-Norco, asked the attorney general to confirm that legislators could not amend the map from the settlement. 

“You certainly can make recommendations, and I would try to accommodate them,” Murrill responded. “If you wanted to make an amendment then I would try to work with that. But no one has suggested a single amendment to me yet.”

Sen. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, questioned whether Gov. Jeff Landry’s call for the ongoing special session, which sets parameters for bills that can be proposed, allowed for changes to the settlement map. The agenda item’s language calls for lawmakers “to legislate relative to the approval or any order or settlement reached” in the NAACP lawsuit.

“So the way I read the call, we’re not able to amend this or revise this in any way. You would agree with that,” Carter asked Johnson, the bill’s author. 

“That’s my interpretation of it. That’s the way I’ve understood it,” Johnson replied.

Murrill challenged Miller’s suggestion that the Legislature could come up with its own districts in its regular session that begins March 11. She and Johnson noted the demise of a comparable bill in January. Five of the seven Supreme Court’s justices backed that bill. Chief Justice John Weimer and Associate Justice Scott Crichton, whose districts were significantly altered, opposed it.  

Miller moved to defer Johnson’s bill, which the committee supported in a 5-3 with Republicans in favor. Three Black Democrats on the committee opposed the deferral, which comes after the Louisiana House overwhelmingly approved the map last week with support from Black lawmakers. It created a second majority-Black seat, but not without significant changes to the remaining districts. 

The proposal would have turned the court’s 2nd District from one based in Northwest Louisiana to one that spans from Northeast Louisiana southward into the Baton Rouge area. As a result, voters in the Shreveport region were placed into two new districts.

Voters in the bayou region would also have been uprooted in the proposed map. It shifted Weimer, who has no party affiliation, to an Acadiana-based 5th District, the stronghold of conservative GOP Gov. Landry.  

As attorney general, Landry joined the NAACP as a plaintiff in its lawsuit and asked a federal judge to halt the state Supreme Court election in Weimer’s district in 2022. Neither Landry nor the NAACP have ever explained why they sought the court stay. Weimer fought Landry’s effort and ran unopposed to win another 10-year term that fall.

Woody Jenkins, head of the East Baton Rouge Republican Party, appeared before the Senate committee Tuesday to oppose the map in Johnson’s bill. He described Weimer as a liberal justice and said conservatives on the state Supreme Court would lose their advantage under the new configuration.

The fact that Woody Jenkins, a former state lawmaker who currently handles external affairs for state Treasurer John Fleming, testified sat wrong with Sen. Sam Jenkins, D-Shreveport, who is not related. State employees are not allowed to take public political stances, the senator noted.