Order for Louisiana to redraw US House districts put on hold

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FILE - Interim Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, R-Baton Rouge, talks to reporters on July 20, 2018, in Baton Rouge, La. A federal appeals court on Thursday night, June 9, 2022, has halted enforcement of a district judges order for Louisiana to redraw new congressional districts by June 20 to include a second majority Black district. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte, File)

NEW ORLEANS – A federal appeals court has put on hold a district judge’s order for Louisiana to redraw new congressional districts by June 20 to include a second majority Black district.

The order late Thursday from the 5th U.S. Court of Appeals is the latest move in a legal battle between the Republican legislature and secretary of state and Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards.

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Edwards had vetoed the new districts drawn up after the latest census, saying that since Louisiana is nearly one-third African American, a single majority-Black district violates the Voting Rights Act. However, the legislature overrode his veto in late March.

A 5th Circuit panel stepped in and paused the remap order Thursday night, hours after U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick refused to delay her deadline while it was appealed.

Lawyers for Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin wrote in a motion filed Friday that Dick’s order would itself require a racial gerrymander that would violate the Voting Rights Act.

State Senate President Page Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder made much the same argument in a motion filed Thursday.

Ardoin said Dick ignored legal precedent and election officials.

“On the record, there is no basis for allowing the State to conduct the coming election in likely violation of federal law and the rights of the State’s Black voters,” responded attorneys for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which represents one of the two groups of voters who challenged the plan.

“Defendants point to nothing in the district court’s order that indicates it made a mistake of law or fact,” said lawyers for the other group.

Cortez and Schexnayder said Friday that a special session scheduled for next week to revise House district boundaries should be canceled.

“Before the judicial redistricting process is complete, any special session would be premature and a waste of taxpayer money,” they wrote.

Edwards, who scheduled the June 15-20 redistricting session, said it's too early to cancel it.

The appeals court is likely to act again before June 15, said a news release from his office.

If Dick's order for a new map June 20 remains on hold, he told lawmakers in a letter, the session should be delayed until a definitive court decision is reached.

“While I am mindful of the costs to the taxpayers as pointed out in your press release, it is clear that the state would have saved the unknown thousands of dollars being spent on out-of-state lawyers if the legislature had originally enacted maps that comply with the Voting Rights Act and the standard of fundamental fairness," he wrote. “It is not too late for the legislature to do the right thing.”

Court papers for Ardoin call the deadline “unworkable” — an argument that Dick described as “insincere and not persuasive.”

The state requires seven days’ notice of the start of the session and three days for bill reading, she wrote. That “would require ten days total, and this Court gave the Legislature fourteen,” she said.

A friend-of-the-court brief from Alabama and 11 other states argued that Dick turned part of the Voting Rights Act from protection against discrimination “into a tool for compelling racially discriminatory redistricting.”

The section makes it illegal to keep people from voting because of their race, but doesn't require "that wherever a majority-minority district can be drawn, it must be drawn,” the states said.

If it did, it would be unconstitutional, the brief contended.

Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah joined with Alabama.

Under Dick's order, “to avoid liability, the State must consider race first and everything else second,” they wrote. “That cannot be the law.”

Kathryn Sadasivan, redistricting counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said the new map “continues to pack Black voters from New Orleans and Baton Rouge into a single congressional district despite the significant changes in the Black population and the shared interests and needs of Black voters in Baton Rouge and the Delta parishes” north of Baton Rouge along and east of the Mississippi River.

She said Dick’s 152-page ruling recognized that the single majority African American district dilutes Black political power.

“We are confident that the November primary election is sufficiently far away to allow this decision to stand,” Sadasivan wrote.

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