Opponents of Louisiana’s Republican-drawn political maps are optimistic the state could soon have new maps that include a second majority-Black congressional district, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Black voters in a similar Alabama case.
The Alabama decision, which ordered that state to create another district with a large Black population, upheld decades of legal jurisprudence in the Voting Rights Act that determine whether redistricting plans are racially discriminatory.
It came in a surprise ruling for the solidly conservative court. Two Republican appointees, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, joined with the court’s three liberal judges to rule in favor of Black voters.
The case against Louisiana’s congressional maps had been stayed by the high court pending the Alabama case. U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick, an nominee of President Barack Obama, had ruled that Louisiana be required to draw another majority-Black district, but the Supreme Court allowed last year’s congressional elections to move forward under the existing maps, with only one such district.
Victoria Wenger, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund who is litigating the cases in Louisiana against the congressional and state legislative maps, said it remains to be seen exactly what will happen in Louisiana. But she said they now know “the rules of the game” moving forward, as the court upheld the same legal framework plaintiffs in Louisiana are using.
“What today foreshadowed is an optimistic road ahead,” she said. “We’re still litigating these. We’re still learning. But we have 40 years of precedence to build on here as opposed to adjusting to a whole new framework.”
She also noted that plaintiffs are using the same legal framework upheld by the Supreme Court in their fight against the legislative maps.
The Urban League of Louisiana, the social service and advocacy group, praised the court's decision Thursday and urged Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards to "immediately" call a special session of the Legislature to redraw Louisiana's maps.
"To delay action any further in Louisiana would be another clear sign of overt efforts to weaken black voting power by unfairly denying black voters an opportunity to fully participate in the electoral process," the organization said in a statement.
Edwards said in a press conference Thursday evening that he believes the litigation will immediately pick back up in the Middle District court, and that the question now is whether the court will allow the Legislature another opportunity to redraw the maps or draw the maps itself.
"It's a win for those who believe in simple math and basic fairness," he said.
State Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, who helped craft the Republican-drawn maps and is running for governor, said she respects the decision. But she added that it’s “not a final ruling regarding the congressional maps in Louisiana.”
“Though we are still digesting the over 100-page opinion, we continue to believe the facts and arguments supporting Louisiana’s congressional maps are distinct from the Alabama case and will eventually be upheld once the legal process is completed,” she said.
Black voters and advocacy groups in Louisiana have a similar case to Alabama.
The plaintiffs in Alabama argued that one majority-Black district out of seven was not enough in a state where 25% of the population is Black.
Louisiana plaintiffs argue that one majority-Black district out of six is not enough, in a state where roughly a third of the population is Black.
By the math, Black voters in Louisiana are more underrepresented than those in Alabama.
Ashley Shelton, executive director of the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, which is part of the case challenging Louisiana’s maps, said the ruling was a “big win for voting rights.”
“I’m optimistic that we will realize fair representation for Black voters in Louisiana,” she said.
If Louisiana is required to redraw maps to add another majority-Black seat in Congress, it would spell a dramatic reversal of fortunes for Democrats in a state where Republicans have steadily gained power and hold near-total control of state government.
Edwards, a rare bright spot for his party’s electoral fortunes, vetoed the Republicans’ congressional map last year and called on the Legislature to add a majority-Black seat.
But Republicans took a historic vote to override his veto – the first time in 31 years a governor suffered a veto override against their wishes – and muscled the maps through. Voters and advocacy groups sued.
State Sen. Cleo Fields, a Baton Rouge Democrat who served in Congress in the 1990s, proposed maps during last year’s redistricting session that would have created a new majority-Black district. Currently, U.S. Rep Troy Carter’s seat – which stretches from New Orleans to heavily Black parts of Baton Rouge – is the only such district.
Fields’ plans, which would have made Carter's district slightly less concentrated with Black voters, were rejected by Republicans in the Legislature. But they could prove to be a roadmap if Louisiana is eventually required to add a majority-Black district.
Fields had proposed creating a second majority-Black District 5, the seat currently held by Republican U.S. Rep. Julia Letlow. Under his plans, that district would be reconfigured to be around 53% Black by stretching from the Mississippi Delta parishes in north Louisiana to parts of greater Baton Rouge.
Fields said in an interview that he’s “very confident” Louisiana will have another majority-Black congressional seat in light of the Alabama ruling.
The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan elections analyst, changed the ratings for both Letlow's and Graves' seats from "solid Republican" to "toss up" because of the Supreme Court decision's implications on Louisiana.
Last year, Carter garnered criticism from progressives for failing, in their view, to fully support a plan for a second majority-Black seat. Carter said at the time that while he supported the idea, he wanted to ensure both seats would be winnable for Black candidates.
After the ruling Thursday, Carter fired off a tweet that suggested full-throated support for a new district.
“Math is math,” Carter said on Twitter. “The law REQUIRES Louisiana to have a second majority-minority seat. I look forward to our state having another opportunity to finally get this right.”