Louisiana's Redistricting News
Times-Picayune: "Redrawn districts have
hopefuls calling foul." July 3, 2003
Igniting a political powder keg for the fall elections, the Legislature has quietly redrawn several House districts in Metairie to give state Rep. Tom Capella a way to seek re-election without having to face an incumbent.
Backers of the plan say that protecting Capella's political future is an accepted goal of the redistricting. But other candidates for the seat that he may now seek are attacking the move, and a Metairie resident on Wednesday filed a federal lawsuit calling it a "private gerrymandering effort" that violates the Voting Rights Act.
Capella, R-Metairie, was elected to a partial term in the 88th District in 2001, after incumbent Jim Donelon resigned. Before Capella took office, however, the Legislature redrew its districts throughout the state to account for population shifts documented in the 2000 census. East Jefferson had lost population, so it was in line to lose a House seat. Donelon's resignation made the choice easy for his colleagues: They eliminated the 88th in East Jefferson and folded its precincts into five surrounding districts, effective at the end of 2003.
Under election rules, that meant Capella could seek a full term in this year's election in any of the surrounding districts, regardless of where he lives. Those districts are the 78th, 79th, 80th, 82nd and 92nd, and each one has an incumbent seeking re-election
The U.S. Justice Department approved the redistricting May 20.
But with little notice that same month, the House redrew the East Jefferson districts a second time, shifting a small part of the 88th District into the 81st District, now represented by Jennifer Sneed, R-Metairie. Sneed in recent months has decided to seek a Jefferson Parish Council seat this fall, leaving the 81st District election wide open again. The last time the seat was open, after David Vitter resigned in 1999, it attracted a whopping 14 candidates.
The second remapping was approved by the Justice Department on Friday and will be in effect for the Aug. 19 qualifying.
State Rep. Charles Lancaster, R-Metairie, who co-sponsored the new map, said protecting an incumbent is a legitimate goal of redistricting. And he said the new map groups lakefront neighborhoods with common interests into the same district. "The major impact of it, obviously, is that it allows (Capella) to run for the district that Rep. Sneed is vacating," Lancaster said. "That's natural in redistricting, and that's how we would have done it the first time if we had known that Jennifer was not going to run for her seat."
Cedric Floyd, a Kenner demographer and redistricting analyst, said the federal government generally allows redistricting changes to help incumbents.
"Keep in mind that incumbents were elected by voters," Floyd said. "The Justice Department recognizes incumbent protection as a criteria for redistricting."
Critics, nonetheless, are crying foul.
"It's a 'You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours' situation," said restaurant owner Billy Kraus, who is running for the 81st District seat. "It was done to favor a majority of one person."
Others in the race include construction worker Michael Armato, lawyer Greg Faia, corporate executive Landon Greene and businessman Eric Skrmetta.
On Wednesday, 81st District resident James Smith filed suit to strike the latest changes before qualifying starts Aug. 19. The suit claims the new plan resulted not from a population shift but rather from an effort to benefit Capella. In addition, the suit says, the new 81st District has about 5,000 more residents than neighboring districts.
"This action by the Legislature creates a new 81st District that's inappropriate and illegal," Smith's attorney, Scott McQuaig said.
The new map takes some precincts south of Interstate 10 and east of Cleary Avenue away from the 81st District and puts them into the 80th. And it extends the 81st farther west along the lakefront, until the district abuts the one where Capella now lives. Only one precinct of the old 88th was added to the new 81st, the absolute minimum to make Capella eligible to run in the 81st.
Capella said his House colleagues were not trying to do him a political favor.
"If they wanted to do me a favor, they would have put my house in the 81st District," he said.
Capella was listed by the Legislature as one of the co-sponsors of the redistricting bill but said he was not closely involved in drafting the new map. Lancaster, however, said Capella was as involved "as anybody else" in the East Jefferson delegation. . . . . . . .
Manuel Torres can be reached at [email protected] or at (504) 883-7052.
AMITE - The Tangipahoa Parish Council election in October could be postponed if a group of black citizens follow through on the threat of a lawsuit over proposed council district lines.
Parish Council members voted Monday to continue to pursue the redistricting plan they've submitted to state and federal officials, despite protests from black council candidate Marvin Vernon, who said he represents several concerned black citizens.
State officials have not approved the plan, and the council has filed suit to allow it to go forward.
The sticking point appears to be proposed changes in some Roseland precincts which shifts populations between District 1, 2, and 3. Districts 1 and 3 have been black majority districts in recent years, and both have elected white representatives. The proposed line shift in Roseland would make District 3 a white majority district by a slim margin.
"Basically what we're asking for is more representation in parish government," Vernon said. According to Vernon about 28 percent of the parish's roughly 100,000 residents are black, but the proposed new district lines leaves only one black majority district. That is District 7, currently represented by Bill Fleet, the only black member of the council.
Vernon said the group will file suit if changes are not made.
"Every time we redistrict, the percent of black districts goes down," Fleet said. Fleet was the only council member to vote against proceeding with the current plan.
The problem is that most of the parish's growth has been in white residents, and more black residents are mixed into white majority neighborhoods.
"I think that is a big improvement in Tangipahoa Parish and that's what has caused some of the problem," Councilman Carlo Bruno said.
Gerrymandering - the practice of drawing district lines for the sole purpose of creating race majorities - is now illegal, parish officials pointed out.
Vernon offered to show council members a different approach he said would create more black majority districts.
Council Chairman Carlos Notariano said he was welcome to share his ideas with council members. He also noted, however, that the law mandates that there be roughly equal populations among each of the council districts and that council members worked for months to come up with the plan they have.
Councilman Mike Petitto, who is white and has been elected by the majority black voters in District 3, said the district has fared well.
More than $300,000 has been spent in road overlays and $1 million in sewerage work in Velma, a black community. There's also been $10,000 spent in playground equipment and a new fire station is being built in District 3 as well.
"In District 3, I've taken care of everyone and I didn't single out where the money was going," Petitto said. "Most of the money was spent in black communities."
State Sen. Ken Hollis' decision to abandon the governor's race and instead seek re-election scrambles the field for the 9th Senate District seat in Metairie that he has held since 1982.
"Anytime an incumbent runs for re-election, they are a major force to be reckoned with," said pollster and consultant Ed Renwick. "It's no longer a vacant seat, so now the incumbent has an advantage raising money." From Our Advertiser
Hollis' announcement Thursday had an immediate effect on the Senate race. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, who was considering a bid for what would have been the open seat, said that after talking to Hollis, he will seek a third term in the House.
"I like the job he's doing, and I'm running for re-election," Scalise said.
State Rep. Tom Capella, R-Metairie, whose 88th District seat is being dissolved into the surrounding districts in East Jefferson as part of the House remap, had announced his bid for the Senate in April.
"Obviously, Ken's decision weighs on me," Capella said. "We are going to take the weekend and talk it over with my family, and it will either be the Senate seat or back for (the) House seat."
Redistricting rules let Capella run in any of the House districts adjoining the 88th. All have incumbents who probably will seek re-election except for the 81st, where incumbent Jennifer Sneed, R-Metairie, plans to run for Parish Council. That's the seat Capella said he is now considering.
Capella's campaign finance reports show he had $15,652 at the beginning of the year. The next report is due July 7.
Another potential Senate candidate, Parish Councilman Nick Giambelluca of Metairie, now is running for an at-large seat on the council.
But Polly Thomas, a former Jefferson Parish School Board member, said she remains in the Senate race, with or without Hollis.
"Those are my plans, and I'm following through," Thomas said.
It's her second challenge to Hollis. In 1999, she resigned from the School Board and signed up for the Senate race, only to withdraw two weeks later for health reasons.
Thomas had $62,547 in her campaign account at the beginning of this year, and Carol and Conrad Appel of Metairie are holding a $250-per-person fund-raiser for her June 21.
Money has rarely been a problem for Hollis, a Metairie Republican who grew wealthy in the insurance field. His most recent report in the gubernatorial campaign showed him with $853,093 on March 28, and $549,900 of that was his own money.
But his announcement is forcing a group of Jefferson Parish business owners and professionals to re-evaluate its role in the race for governor. The 35-member Jefferson Business Leaders for Governor picked Hollis as their "favorite son" earlier this month, trying to combine their money and influence in hopes of giving a Jefferson Parish candidate an edge in the crowded race.
Now members are discussing whether to disband the group or select another candidate from the entire field, not limited to ones with Jefferson political connections, said the group's organizer, apartment developer Henry Shane.
As for the $5,000 that the group had pledged to Hollis' campaign for governor, Shane said Hollis will get the check anyway.
"We're not going to rescind that," Shane said.
In a stunning victory for supporters of Jefferson Parish Council redistricting, the U.S. Justice Department approved five new council districts Friday, replacing a decade-old council structure and leaving a pending lawsuit as the only hurdle that could block the controversial plan from being used in the fall elections.
Surprising both supporters and opponents, who did not expect a ruling until next month, the Justice Department said it had no objection to the electoral maps that were drafted after voters agreed in November to reduce the number of council districts from six to five and to double the parishwide seats to two.
The ruling immediately made the 5-2 structure the council's official makeup for election purposes, shaking up the political landscape less than two months before qualifying for the fall ballot begins Aug. 19.
Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, changes in electoral districts in Southern states are invalid without Justice Department assurance that they do not reduce the political influence of racial minorities.
Supporters of the new districts, who kept pushing the plan even as critics and legal analysts declared it doomed, celebrated as news of the decision spread rapidly in political circles.
"I'm ecstatic," said Councilman Nick Giambelluca, who with Councilman Donald Jones has been one of the most vocal supporters of the 5-2 plan. "I said it from Day One that this was the people's choice and we were going to get it."
But Parish Attorney Tom Wilkinson, along with lawyers for residents who are challenging the plan in court, cautioned that the new districts still face a federal lawsuit set for trial July 21. Ron Wilson, the plaintiffs' attorney, said the 5-2 plan dilutes the voting strength of African-Americans, and that proponents are celebrating prematurely.
"Tell them not to pop the champagne too soon," he said. "What Justice did does not affect our case, and the battle continues in court."
The new plan
The Justice Department's approval replaces the current six districts with five new districts. The 1st District is located entirely in West Jefferson, while the 3rd District crosses the Mississippi River but counts the majority of its voters in West Jefferson. The 4th and 5th districts are located entirely in East Jefferson, the more populous side of the river. The 2nd District is almost equally divided between East and West Jefferson.
Washington's approval of the new districts culminates a process that began two years ago, when several incumbent council members, banned from seeking re-election because of term limits, began lobbying for more parishwide seats. Although term limits force them from their current seats in January 2004, it lets district representatives run for at-large seats and vice versa.
At Parish President Tim Coulon's behest, the council reactivated Jefferson's Charter Advisory Board in 2001 to review the parish's constitutional law, and most council members asked that a 5-2 proposal be considered. They said that more parishwide representation would reduce the council's parochialism.
Most members of the advisory board rejected the 5-2 plan, but the council placed the idea on the Nov. 5 ballot anyway. Fifty-eight percent of voters approved it.
The council then drew up district maps to implement the plan, adopted one and sent it to the Justice Department in late February.
Rejection by Justice would have immediately killed the plan. That's what several legal analysts and politicians had predicted in recent months, as federal government attorneys asked for more information, extending their deadline until July 21 -- less than a month before qualifying. Even U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who is presiding over the lawsuit filed against the plan, said last month that there was a "high likelihood" that Justice would not approve it in time for qualifying for the Oct. 4 elections.
But the signals changed Monday when a Justice Department attorney said the initial review would be completed this week. Still, parish officials said they were blown away when they received the department's decision Friday, and some said privately they were even more surprised that the department approved the contested plan.
But overall, officials were relieved the first of two major legal hurdles has been cleared.
"We're clear to go under the 5-2 plan," Councilman Lloyd Giardina said. "The lawsuit is the only issue outstanding."
The Justice Department's letter, signed by Joseph Rich, chief of the Voting Rights Section, said the department may re-examine the plan if new information warrants it before July 21. The letter also indicates that approval of the plan does not prevent a lawsuit from stopping its implementation.
That's what Wilson said the plaintiffs hope to do at next month's trial. Wilson said they won't seek an injunction to stop the 5-2 plan before trial, because the trial will take place before qualifying.
Council members said they now will seek to move the trial to an earlier date, a move Wilson said the plaintiffs will oppose.
Parish officials said the Justice Department's ruling may strengthen their political position in Barbier's court. But one experienced litigator in redistricting cases said the decision is unlikely to influence Barbier's ruling.
"The courts do not take into account the fact that the plan has been approved," said Mississippi civil rights attorney Robert McDuff, who has taken multiple redistricting cases to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Political landscape changes
The 5-2 plan is the third Parish Council structure adopted since Jefferson's charter created the legislative body in 1957. The original charter replaced a 17-member Police Jury with a seven-member council made up of four district members, one parishwide representative and two "floterial" members, each representing two of the four districts.
That 4-2-1 structure prevailed until 1991, when U.S. District Judge Peter Beer ruled that it diluted black voting strength and replaced it with the 6-1 system. The parish adjusted the six districts last year to reflect results of the 2000 Census.
By suddenly shifting the political landscape, Justice's approval of the 5-2 map immediately forced candidates for the October election to re-evaluate their strategies. Those who were running for council chairman, the only parishwide seat in the 6-1 plan, will now have to choose between the two at-large seats. And with one less council district seat, candidates for those posts may now face an entirely different scenario.
Still, the uncertainty brought about by the pending lawsuit means candidates must keep almost parallel campaigns for differing districts under the 6-1 and the 5-2 plans, said council Chairman Aaron Broussard, who is running for parish president and is not affected by the redistricting. Candidates won't really know what district seat to seek until Barbier rules, he said.
"As the great Yogi Berra said, 'It ain't over 'til it's over,' " Broussard said.
BATON ROUGE -- After extensive legislative wrangling and a court battle, the federal government gave its stamp of approval Tuesday to a state House redistricting plan for the fall elections.
Rep. Peppi Bruneau, R-New Orleans, who guided two versions of the proposal through the Legislature during the past year and half, announced the decision to cheers on the House floor.
A letter from the U.S. Department of Justice to the House speaker said the agency reserves the right to re-examine the plan during the rest of the 60-day review period. Like other Southern states, Louisiana must get approval of its political reapportionment proposals from the Justice Department to ensure that minority voting rights are not diminished.
The first plan, approved in October 2001, was rejected because it reduced the number of majority black seats from 27 to 26 in the 105-member body. The second plan, House Bill 779, approved in the current legislative session, faced intense debate in the lower chamber because some black lawmakers complained it reduced minority populations in two of the New Orleans districts.
Black lawmakers continue to oppose the new districts. The head of the Legislative Black Caucus has said the group will file suit again, possibly delaying the October elections if the matter gets tied up in court.
The proposal carves up the Uptown district of Rep. Mitch Landrieu, a white Democrat who plans to run for lieutenant governor instead of seeking re-election. It makes the district majority black by carving out majority-white precincts and adding some black precincts from neighboring districts.
Landrieu's district currently extends from a point near Xavier University to the Mississippi River. That district, which is about 62 percent white, has traditionally included the Tulane and Loyola universities area and some of the most affluent neighborhoods in the city along St. Charles Avenue.
The new plan chops it up to create a district with a 57 percent black population, snaking from the river to the Central Business District.
The Audubon Park area and the universities are moved to the neighboring 95th District, represented by Rep. Alex Heaton, a white Democrat, while some precincts in the lower Garden District are shifted to the 91st District, held by Rep. Rosalind Peychaud, a black Democrat.
BATON ROUGE - Two days after sending a House redistricting plan to the U.S. Department of Justice for preclearance, the House adopted another redistricting bill, this one proposing minor changes to the larger plan.
House Bill 2011, passed Wednesday, would make changes affecting just eight legislative districts, including Districts 11 and 12 in northern Louisiana.
Lawmakers said the changes in Lincoln Parish will keep election costs down for the parish by combining precincts that had been split in the overall redistricting plan passed earlier.
The changes in HB 2011 will not jeopardize the plan that was submitted Monday in compliance with a court settlement agreement, Rep. Charles Lancaster, R-Metairie, said.
Federal officials have said they will preclear the plan that was embodied in Act 2 sent to Washington on Monday, officials have said.
But Lancaster said the proposed changes in HB 2011 will be reviewed separately and only become effective if Justice decides they do not violate the federal Voting Rights Act.
The House turned back attempts to make further changes, including a major redrawing of lines in southwest Louisiana intended to create a new district for Rep. Kay Iles, D-Deridder.
The House voted 76-19 to send HB 2011 to the Senate for further consideration.
BATON ROUGE -- After almost no debate, the Senate gave final approval Wednesday to a political redistricting plan for the state House of Representatives. Supporters say it will quickly be approved by the federal government, but opponents say it does not meet minority voting rights requirements.
Black lawmakers say the proposal dilutes the strength of African-American voters in some districts, and that the final map may end up being drawn by a court.
Rep. Arthur Morrell, D-New Orleans, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said his group will notify the U.S. Department of Justice of its concerns about the proposal. He said the caucus also will file a lawsuit alleging that the Legislature did not create enough black-majority districts in places where there is significant African-American population growth and that other districts do not provide sufficient black voting strength.
Rep. Peppi Bruneau, R-New Orleans, one of the sponsors of House Bill 779, has said the bill has already been agreed to by a federal judge and Justice Department officials, noting that it keeps the same number of majority-black districts as now. Gov. Foster is expected to sign the legislation, which will then be sent to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, where Bruneau said it will be approved by either the court or the U.S. Justice Department.
Like other Southern states with a history of discriminating against African-American voters, Louisiana must get approval from the federal government of its political redistricting plans.
The House and Senate have typically rubber-stamped the other side's reapportionment proposals. The Senate maintained that policy Wednesday, passing Bruneau's bill on a 31-4 vote after less than 10 minutes of discussion.
Before the Senate vote, the House and Government Affairs Committee agreed to a few precinct changes to the proposal, but only those that have no effect on the viability of majority-black districts for African-American candidates. If these changes make it through the process, they will have to be reviewed separately by the Justice Department and will go into effect only if they are approved before the August qualifying date for the fall elections.
When the House drew up its original redistricting proposal in the fall of 2001, it responded to a population decrease in Orleans Parish by eliminating the black-majority Lakefront district represented by Rep. Melinda Schwegmann, a white Democrat, merging it with the Lakeview district of Bruneau, a white Republican.
Black lawmakers and citizens groups protested that move, noting that it reduced the number of districts with majority black populations from 27 to 26. The Justice Department agreed, saying it amounted to illegal "retrogression" prohibited by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
A three-judge panel in Washington had been poised to consider that contention, but Bruneau and other House leaders decided to settle the case, determining the matter would not have made its way through the appellate courts before the fall elections.
Instead of reinstating Schwegmann's district, the proposal seizes upon the Uptown district of Rep. Mitch Landrieu, a white Democrat who plans to run for lieutenant governor instead of seeking re-election.
Bruneau's legislation dices up Landrieu's district to make it majority black by carving out majority-white precincts and adding some black precincts from the neighboring districts of Reps. Rosalind Peychaud and Karen Carter, both black Democrats.
Landrieu's district currently is shaped like a slice of pie extending from a point near Xavier University to the Mississippi River, bordered by Lowerline Street and Napoleon Avenue. That district, which is currently about 62 percent white, has traditionally included the Tulane and Loyola universities area and some of the most affluent neighborhoods in the city along St. Charles Avenue.
The new plan chops it up to create a district with a 57 percent black population, snaking from the river to the Central Business District. Instead of extending out to Napoleon Avenue, the district reaches to the river along Jefferson Avenue on one side and Exposition Boulevard on the other.
Under the bill, the Audubon Park area and the universities are moved to the neighboring 95th District, represented by Rep. Alex Heaton, a white Democrat, while some precincts in the lower Garden District are shifted to the 91st District, held by Peychaud.
OPELOUSAS - On June 5, when the St. Landry Parish School Board meets for its regular meeting, five new faces will greet the public.
Among those five newcomers will be two black board members increasing the number of blacks represented on the 13-member panel to five, though there are only four majority/minority districts.
The fact that a fifth black has been elected to the majority white District 12 seat, does not assure that a minority will retain that seat next election, said Roy Bellard, president of the St. Landry Parish chapter of the NAACP.
"If you have been one way for a 100 years, one term does means everything is forgiven and forgotten, does it?" Bellard said.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is seeking a redesign of the School Board's 2000 redistricting plan, citing under-representation of the parish's 44 percent minority population.
The NAACP believes the plan should have a minimum of five majority-minority districts and the plan allows for four. The NAACP filed suit in April against the School Board and St. Landry Parish Police Jury, which basically has the same plan as the School Board.
School Board elections were held this spring because its 2000 census-based redistricting plan did not received U.S. Justice Department approval in time for fall 2002 elections.
The fact that a black was elected in District 1, this election, when that seat was drawn as a minority district says something, Bellard said.
In Saturday's run-off elections, District 1 Board Member Paulette Olivier was defeated by black candidate, Phyllis Mason-Fisher.
In the April 5 primary elections, black incumbents, Charles Ross, District 2; John Miller, District 3; and Quincy Richard, District 10 were returned to their seats. That same day, Josie Frank, a Eunice attorney, was elected to represent District 12, a majority white district.
Other incumbents returned on April 5 were: Dillard "Butch" Deville, District 4; Marx "Sonny" Budden, District 5; Ronald Carriere, District 6; Huey Wyble, District 7; and Roger Young, District 11.
The Sunset, Grand Coteau and Cankton represented by the District 8 seat was the only one to not have an incumbent running for election. Longtime Board Member Jerry Domengeaux bowed out so he could instead run for the newly created St. Landry Parish presidency.
That election along with elections for a new parish council will be conducted in October.
Replacing Domengeaux will be Kyle Boss, a first time school board member.
Joining Boss as first time representatives will be Harry Furge in District 13 and Scott Richard in District 9.
Fruge defeated School Board Member Germaine Courville on April 5 elections and Richard defeated Armand Castille in Saturday's run-off elections.
"I feel the suit should proceed as scheduled," Bellard said. The intent of the suit is to assure a fair chance is given that 44 percent of the population to be fairly represented, he said.
Federal officials have asked Jefferson Parish for a barrage of new information in their attempt to evaluate a proposed five-district plan, in a move that could push a resolution on the contested redistricting alarmingly close to August qualifying for the Parish Council elections.
In a letter sent to the parish Thursday, the U.S. Department of Justice requested answers to three pages of questions to determine how the proposed council structure of five districts and two parishwide seats would affect the strength of the parish's minority voters.
The parish has 60 days to respond and the Justice Department has another 60 days to evaluate the new information, possibly extending the redistricting process to a few weeks before qualifying, set to start Aug. 19. Parish officials Monday said they can collect the data in as little as two weeks, but the federal letter renewed concerns among redistricting opponents that the October elections may be affected and the trial of a lawsuit filed by citizens against the proposed new districts delayed.
"Now this is going to turn around and bite us in the behind," Councilman Lloyd Giardina said.
However, supporters said there's plenty of time to get an answer from the Justice Department or a federal court before qualifying. They also noted that federal officials did not outright reject the five-district concept, which was approved by voters in November but needs federal approval.
"It certainly gives me hope that they will accept the 5-2 plan," Councilman Nick Giambelluca said.
Councilman Donald Jones, who also supports the plan, said Justice Department officials three weeks ago told parish attorneys that they had not studied the parish's documents. If the issue is still unresolved as qualifying approaches, Jones said, the parish can use the current six-district plan, which the Justice Department approved earlier this year.
"I don't see the council seeking to delay the election at all," Jones said.
Both Giardina and Councilman T.J. "Butch" Ward said they would not seek to delay the election. Giambelluca, Chairman Aaron Broussard and Councilman John Lavarine said it was too early to define a position. Councilman Ed Muniz could not be reached Monday.
The Justice Department asked Jefferson for a detailed account of the redistricting process, explaining the role each plan's proponent played and attaching a long list of documents, including any e-mails, letters and other communications council members exchanged during the process.
"They are trying to make sure there was no conspiracy to dilute the African-American vote, and the record will show there was none," said Jones, the only black council member.
But parish citizens who have filed a federal lawsuit against the five-district plan interpreted the Justice Department's request as a sign that officials are concerned that the voting strength of African-Americans would be diluted.
"The letter shows we're onto something," said Westwego Councilman Glenn Green, chairman of the Jefferson Citizens for Better Government, which is the principal plaintiff.
Demographer Cedric Floyd noted that the letter also asks about the parish's authority to place the five-district concept on the Nov. 5 ballot. Voters endorsed the plan then, and the council approved a map Feb. 12.
Floyd, who is supporting the citizens lawsuit, has maintained that the parish did not get federal approval before the election, as required by the federal Voting Rights Act.
"We're not surprised about the letter, given that we knew from the beginning that the parish did not have the authority to place this on the ballot," Floyd said.
Down to the wire
Redistricting experts said it's not unusual for the Justice Department to request more information when considering a redistricting plan. M. David Gelfand, professor of constitutional law at Tulane University, said federal officials want to be "real careful" with Jefferson because all parish redistrictings completed before Census 2000 have been settled through lengthy lawsuits. A federal court set the six-district structure that the new plan would replace.
But Gelfand said it's now up to the parish to speed up the clock by sending the requested information as soon as possible. Every day of delay, he said, puts the council another day closer to affecting the October elections.
"The ball is now back in the parish's hands," Gelfand said.
Parish Attorney Tom Wilkinson said the parish will begin collecting the requested information "immediately."
Wilkinson and Floyd said both sides in the federal lawsuit also will seek a meeting with U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier to review the May 22 trial date. Barbier had indicated he wanted to wait for an answer from the Justice Department before holding a trial, and had set an alternate trial date for June 12.
In the meantime, however, critics said they worry the new request will add to the parish's legal tab. Jefferson spent more than $1 million on redistricting lawsuits in the 1990s, and so far has approved a $120,000 budget for the latest legal challenge. But Wilkinson said parish lawyers will have to review the response to the Justice Department's request, and that should add some fees.
"I'd like to know how much it is going to cost us to send these responses," Giardina said.
BATON ROUGE -- Questions about what was said behind closed doors in a federal judge's chambers last week sparked a heated debate Thursday in a House committee, as lawmakers butted heads about a proposal to draw the political boundary lines for the state House of Representatives.
The House and Governmental Affairs Committee approved the redistricting plan 10-3 after Chairman Charles Lancaster, R-Metairie, said it was the only one that has been blessed by a federal judge and therefore guaranteed speedy confirmation by federal officials.
"The bill before us today has the pre-approval of the Justice Department," said Lancaster, during a rancorous discussion about whether the proposal is in compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Lancaster urged lawmakers to approve the "compromise" proposal in House Bill 779 without any amendments, which he said would jeopardize expedited approval.
But other lawmakers argued that Lancaster and Rep. Peppi Bruneau, R-New Orleans, sponsor of the plan, are trying to sell lawmakers on a proposal that does not do enough to protect the rights of black voters, particularly in New Orleans.
"The Legislative Black Caucus did not agree to this plan," said Rep. Karen Carter, D-New Orleans, who has complained that the districts created by Bruneau's proposal reduce the percentages of black voters from the current level, which she maintains illegally dilutes African-American voting strength.
Caucus Chairman Arthur Morrell, D-New Orleans, also pushed for lawmakers to consider changing Bruneau's plan, saying he attended the settlement conference in the chambers of Judge James Robertson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and the judge did not say the Legislature had to approve a specific plan.
Robertson's only requirement is that the current number of black-majority districts in the House is maintained, Morrell said. The committee voted down attempts by both Carter and Morrell to amend Bruneau's plan.
The original plan passed by the Legislature in the fall of 2001 did not pass muster with the Justice Department, which disagreed with the decision to reduce the number of black-majority House districts by one. House leaders took the proposal to a three-judge panel in Washington seeking approval but felt they were running out of time before the fall elections, Bruneau said. So, they decided to settle the case, re-creating the black-majority district eliminated in Orleans Parish.
Exactly how many parties have agreed to Bruneau's compromise proposal is in dispute.
Although Carter said the Black Caucus does not support the proposal, House Clerk Alfred "Butch" Speer, an attorney for the House in the negotiations, said the agreement was reached between House leaders, the U.S. Department of Justice, the Black Caucus and a group of citizens. That agreement was for a specific political map, he said, adding that there are no guarantees that either the Justice Department or a three-judge panel would rapidly approve a proposal that deviated from the plan in the bill.
Bruneau's bill re-creates the black district eliminated in Orleans Parish in 2001, centering it on the Uptown area represented by Rep. Mitch Landrieu, a white Democrat, who is not seeking re-election.
The proposal divvies up the district, splitting it along Exposition Boulevard, pushing the eastern precincts into neighboring District 95, represented by Alex Heaton, D-New Orleans, and picking up black-majority precincts from surrounding districts.
Carter criticized this move, saying Bruneau was dividing a stable "community of interest" in the 14th Ward in order to jury-rig a black-majority district. Instead, Carter advocates pushing Bruneau's Lakeview district half into Jefferson Parish, which would allow the creation of a black-majority district in the Lakefront area around the University of New Orleans.
BATON ROUGE - Over objections of a few unhappy New Orleans residents and lawmakers, the Louisiana House and Governmental Affairs Committee voted 10-3 Thursday to approve a redistricting plan for the House of Representatives its author said embodies a compromise acceptable to the federal government.
But two black lawmakers, hinting that the battle is far from over, implied a lawsuit seeking to block implementation of the plan likely would be filed and could delay House elections this fall.
However, House Clerk Alfred "Butch" Speer said chances a lawsuit could be successful or delay legislative elections are minimal "if not zero."
Attorneys representing the House, the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, Community Coalition for Fair and Equitable Representation and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ironed out the agreement over two days of negotiations, Speer said.
The proposal cannibalizes the current district of Rep. Mitchell "Mitch" Landrieu to create another majority black district in New Orleans and increase black majorities in House Districts 11, 21 and 72.
Rep. Richard "Rick" Gallot, D-Ruston, represents District 11. Rep. Bryant Hammett, D-Ferriday, holds District 21. And Rep. Robert "Robbie" Carter, D-Greensburg, has District 72.
After attorneys signed off on the compromise, it was endorsed by the U.S. Justice Department and the presiding judge for the three-judge panel that is hearing legal challenges to the redistricting efforts in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Speer said.
"I can't tell you if we adopt something other than the compromise (that) it will be approved within 60 days. I can tell you if the compromise is passed, it will be precleared (allowing elections to proceed) within 72 hours of it becoming an act," he said.
Responding to suggestions by Reps. Karen Carter and Arthur Morrell, both New Orleans Democrats, that the compromise was only agreed to in concept, Speer said it is much more detailed, reaching down to the precinct level.
When asked by Rep. Edwin Murray, D-New Orleans, whether the plan detailed in House Bill 779 embodies the exact compromise reached by the parties in negotiations, Speer said, "Absolutely, without equivocation."
Despite those assurances, Carter, Murray and Rep. Willie Hunter, D-Monroe, voted against the bill, losing to 10 other members of the committee.
Voting to send the bill to the House floor for passage were Reps. Charles "Peppi" Bruneau, R-New Orleans and author of the bill, Gallot, Billy Montgomery, D-Haughton, Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, Loulan Pitre, R-Cut Off, Jennifer Sneed, R-Metairie, Steve Scalise, R-Metairie, Charles Lancaster, R-Metairie, Mike Futrell, R-Baton Rouge, and Wayne Waddell, R-Shreveport.
The House remap plan is the only redistricting effort pending.Under the Voting Rights Act, any changes in election law must be approved by the federal government before elections may be held based on the changes.
BATON ROUGE - State Rep. Richard "Rick" Gallot Jr. doubts legislative redistricting will be settled during the session that begins Monday. At least not for his House of Representatives district.
Several bills have been prefiled in the House to resolve disagreements over allegations that the redistricting plan passed in 2001 violates the federal Voting Rights Act by reducing minority voting strength in various parts of the state.
Realignment of the 105 House districts to conform with the 2000 census is the only state redistricting issue remaining. Plans for the 39-member Senate, seven congressional districts, eight Board of Elementary and Secondary Education seats and five-member Public Service Commission were precleared by the U.S. Justice Department.
But House leaders chose to make their case before the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia.
Faced with trial Tuesday-Thursday, lawyers met in Washington, D.C., on March 20 to talk about a compromise, lawmakers said. House Speaker Charlie DeWitt, D-Alexandria, said participants left thinking an agreement had been reached to avoid trial.
Rep. Arthur Morrell, D-New Orleans, said, "Peppi (Rep. Charles Bruneau, R-New Orleans) says there's an agreement. Our attorney said he would take a look at what was offered and report to the (Louisiana Legislative Black) Caucus."
Morrell, caucus chairman, said by filing House Bill 779 realigning several districts to accommodate black voters, Bruneau is acknowledging the Legislature violated the Voting Rights Act.
The Bruneau bill, however, does not address the concerns of the caucus, he said, and Morrell has filed his own legislation to address the issue.
The trial that was set to begin Tuesday was postponed, and all that will happen next week is a status conference, he said. "If there is no agreement in this session, then we'll go totrial."
Bruneau, who shepherded the redistricting efforts in the House, declined requests for a telephone interview this week.
Meanwhile, Gallot, D-Ruston, expects to go to court over his House District 11 seat regardless of how the larger fight is resolved. "(Johnny) Maxwell has said he would go to court if Lincoln Parish is not whole (within a single House district)," Gallot said, adding that the parish is divided between House seats under all the pending plans.
Although District 11 has a 55 percent majority black population, the plan also was challenged by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Community Coalition for Fair and Equal Representation because the district previously had a 57 percent black majority, he said.
Similarly, those groups opposed the 2001 plan because it reduced black majorities in House Districts 21 and 72. Bruneau's bill supposedly would fix the problems with the districts outside New Orleans.
Morrell said House Bill 779 does not go far enough to correct deficiencies in New Orleans, where the 2001 plan eliminated a majority black district to keep Bruneau in a majority white district in the city and maintain a viable district for Rep. Mitch Landrieu, a white New Orleans Democrat.
Lawmakers thought they had a compromise because Landrieu has decided to run for lieutenant governor, allowing his House district to be carved up to restore the lost black district. All that remains is deciding how the new black district in New Orleans will be drawn.
The leadership of the Louisiana House is retreating from a redistricting plan that black lawmakers and the U.S. Justice Department alleges illegally dilutes black voter strength.
House Speaker Pro-tem Peppi Bruneau, lead author on the contested House remap plan, has filed a bill that would restore a majority-black district that lawmakers scrapped in the plan approved last year by the Legislature.
House Clerk Butch Speer said Thursday that the proposed changes in election district lines reflect a settlement agreement reached last week in Washington, D.C., among attorneys representing parties to the litigation.
A trial in federal court is no longer on tap, said Speer, who participated in the negotiations.
If the deal goes through, the fall House elections can proceed as scheduled under new district lines. Qualifying is in August for the Oct. 4 elections.
The major change affects election districts in the New Orleans area, increasing from eight to nine the number of majority-black districts there. That means the House would continue to have 27 majority black districts -- the same it does today. The House has 105 members.
Also affected by the remap are three rural House districts, including the Florida Parishes district of state Rep. Robbie Carter, D-Greensburg.
Carter's district and those of state Rep. Bryant Hammett, D-Ferriday, and Rick Gallot, D-Grambling, would include more black voters than under the contested plan.
The new maps, which would be used for fall elections, must be approved by the Legislature and a federal court.
Attorneys for the House, the Legislative Black Caucus, the U.S. Justice Department and a group represented by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund are scheduled to go before a Washington, D.C., court on Tuesday "to begin the process of finalizing the agreement," Speer said.
The remap legislation will go before the Legislature in its session that begins Monday.
"I would like to work something out where we don't have to go through a trial if we can," House Speaker Charles DeWitt, D-Lecompte, said.
Bruneau could not be reached for comment Wednesday or Thursday.
State Rep. Arthur Morrell, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said Bruneau's newly filed remap legislation proves that black lawmakers were right in 2001 when they said the plan violated federal law by reducing majority black districts.
Morrell, D-New Orleans, said the House wasted $200,000 in legal and other expenses pursuing a plan officials knew would never comply with a federal civil-rights law governing reapportionment.
"They should have done the right thing the first time, when we told them they can't do this. Now they are admitting 'Yes, they were wrong.' It's an expensive lesson," Morrell said.
"By reducing us one (majority black district) at the same time there was an increase in black population was a slap in the face."
Black population grew from 30.8 to 32.5 percent of Louisiana's population between 1990 and 2000, U.S. census figures show.
Even though attorneys for the Legislative Black Caucus agreed to the settlement, Morrell said he's still not happy with what's proposed. He hinted there could be trouble at Tuesday's court hearing unless more changes are proposed.
Morrell has filed legislation restoring the New Orleans-area black district that he claimed got scrapped so Bruneau, a veteran House member, could keep a white New Orleans-based district. The legislation would also increase the number of black voters in a couple of New Orleans districts above what Bruneau's bill contemplates.
One of Morrell's bills would move Bruneau's district into Jefferson Parish. Morrell said he hopes to strike a compromise so Bruneau's district stays in New Orleans.
The reshuffling of district lines in the New Orleans area became easier because state Rep. Mitch Landrieu, D-New Orleans, has announced he will not seek re-election this fall but instead will run for lieutenant governor. That made it less important for his district to stay intact.
Landrieu was still running for re-election when the House redrew its 105 districts to make them reflect population shifts in the last decade.
Under the U.S. Voting Rights Act, Louisiana and other states with a history of racial discrimination need federal approval of changes in election law. The law says new district lines cannot reduce black voting strength.
Routinely, states submit their plans to the Justice Department for approval. But Louisiana House leaders opted to bypass the Justice Department and go straight to the D.C. court -- a little-used option -- saying they had not gotten a fair hearing out of the Justice Department in the past.
It's in that court where the proposed House remap plan sits today.
Justice and black advocacy groups filed objections to the plan, and a trial had been scheduled to begin next week.
MANSFIELD - DeSoto School Board members have settled on yet another reapportionment plan. But not everyone is happy with the final selection.
Meeting in special session Tuesday night, the board voted 7-4 to approve a proposal referred to as Plan 2. Voting against the revised map were the board's three black board members - McLawrence Fuller, James Wiggins and L.J. Mayweather Jr. - along with Tommy Craig, who is white.
Fuller made an unsuccessful attempt to have the panel consider Plan 3, which would increase the black percentage in his district from 54.66 percent to 61.3 percent. Fuller's District 3 is situated in the heavily white populated north DeSoto area. All three maps had the potential of increasing minority representation on the board from four to five.
Fuller's amendment, which followed the original motion to consider Plan 2, was ruled out of order. Later, board member John Neilson offered another motion asking board members to reconsider Fuller's request.
"I don't want anyone to feel like they were left out of the process," Neilson said.
Fuller declined the offer. "I'm through with it."
Fuller, Wiggins and Mayweather jointly signed a letter - presented to fellow board members members at the meeting - asking them to reconsider a plan that was among the many reviewed last year. No other board member commented on the letter. But the three plan to forward it to the U.S. Justice Department.
The board has been working on revising its election district lines for more than a year. Delays caused by trying to get approval of additional voting precinct splits and providing additional information to Justice caused the board to miss October's election date.
In December, Justice refused to preclear the original reapportionment plan, citing what it perceived to be a retrogression of black voting strength in Craig's district. It was learned earlier this year that the plan contained a miscalculation in the benchmark figures, thus population figures in Craig's district were incorrect. The benchmark is used by Justice attorneys to compare 2000 census figures to the plan under which School Board members were elected after the 1990 census.
The School Board still must submit the newest plan to the DeSoto Police Jury for approval of eight voting precinct splits, which is an increase of one over the old plan. The Police Jury likely will meet Monday, DeSoto schools Superintendent Walter Lee said.
The Jefferson Parish Council approved the boundaries of a new five-district lineup for its membership Wednesday, but reminded citizens that a final decision on how they will elect council members probably will be left up to the U.S. Justice Department or a federal court.
With Councilman T.J. "Butch" Ward opposed and Councilman Lloyd Giardina abstaining, the council approved a district map that had been presented only the day before by Council Chairman Aaron Broussard.
Jefferson Parish voters Nov. 5 approved a charter change that would restructure the council from its current makeup in which six members are elected from districts and one is elected parishwide. The new system reduces the districts to five and includes two parishwide seats.
"We must put a plan forward today to honor the public referendum of November," Broussard told the council.
Ward and Giardina, however, said public opinion has changed since the referendum. In addition, the parish has been sued in federal court by a citizens group, claiming that the 5-2 structure violates the court order that originally created the council's current six-district plan.
Though voters overwhelmingly approved the five-district council makeup, Giardina said they were only approving a concept.
"In concept it sounded good," he said. "Now that we have to draw districts, I have heard opposition and changes of opinion."
Ward said West Jefferson residents are outraged at the impending change. He pointed to a number of civic groups and governmental bodies that have filed formal complaints with the parish over what they perceive will be inequitable representation.
"There's been meetings going on nightly across the West Bank" as people come to realize what a five-district council configuration will look like, he said. "Opposition is mounting and it will continue to mount."
Ward suggested the council approve Broussard's map but give parish voters a choice between it and the current six-district map. But that proposal never came up for a formal vote.
The parish is facing a ticking clock. Under the federal Voting Rights Act, any changes in district lines need approval from the U.S. Justice Department, which can take up to 60 days to consider the new lines and can take even longer if it needs more information.
Council elections are scheduled for October, but candidate qualifying will be held in mid-August, which means some district lines would have to be in place by then or else the elections could be delayed. Late last year, the Justice Department approved a redistricting plan based on Census 2000 and the current six-district structure.
Councilman Ed Muniz said some residents think council members are deliberately trying to delay elections because their terms of office would have to be extended if the elections are delayed. Not voting on a five-district plan Wednesday "would make us appear to be guilty" of that very charge, he said.
Muniz said not a single resident in his East Jefferson district has complained about the move to a five-district system.
West Jefferson residents have complained that any five-district plan would result in a 3-2 lineup in favor of east bank residents since the majority of the population is in East Jefferson. They also fear that both at-large seats under the 5-2 plan could be won by east bank residents as well.
But Broussard said one of the advantages of his plan is that while there are two districts wholly contained on the east bank and two in which West Bank voters predominate, another district would be almost evenly split between East and West Jefferson populations.
"The balance issue has been addressed," Broussard said.
Besides complaints from West Bank voters about possible loss of representation, some East Jefferson communities object to being included in districts where West Jefferson voters predominate, fearing their interests will be forgotten as well.
And in the meantime, a group, calling itself Jefferson Citizens for Better Government, sued the parish, claiming it violated the Voting Rights Act by failing to get preclearance before conducting the election. The suit asks U.S. District Court in New Orleans to nullify last November's referendum.
Broussard said Wednesday's vote was the next step the council had to take but by no means ensured that voters will be picking council members from five districts next year.
Eventually, the Justice Department or a federal judge will decide if the six-district or the five-district plan will be the operative one, he said. Either way, the council had to vote Wednesday to implement the voters will and to start the machinery for getting federal approval.
"This is a process," Broussard said. "It's a process that's continuing."
Dennis Persica can be reached at [email protected] or (504) 826-3783.
MANSFIELD - DeSoto School Board members learned Thursday that months of haggling over an acceptable reapportionment plan and postponement of their elections last fall may have been for naught. It appears the plan submitted last year to the U.S. Justice Department contains flawed figures.
That error, which gave the incorrect racial makeup of Mansfield's District 9, prompted the Justice Department on Dec. 31 to deny the board's new redistricting plan based on what it perceived as retrogression of minority districts. The decision was reached by applying 2000 Census figures, which is considered the benchmark, to the plan adopted in 1994 under which the current board was elected.
"It's still a majority black district," demographer Gary Joiner said of applying the adjusted figures to District 9. "But not as solidly black."
The percentage, when applying the benchmark, drops from 68 percent to 55 percent.
The failed plan retains the School Board's four minority districts. Minority board members, however, supported a different plan that designates five minority districts. Justice attorneys appeared to concur and pointed to the racial makeup of District 9 as a reason to reject the plan.
Faced with the new information, board members voted Thursday to instruct Joiner to draw another plan taking into account the revised figures. The board's three black board members - L.J. Mayweather, James Wiggins, McLawrence Fuller - objected.
A Feb. 25 work session is set for board members to review Joiner's proposals. Board President Brenda Hall hopes the board can make a final decision March 4.
The error in figures was discovered early this week after Joiner considered concerns raised during a Jan. 28 work session. District 6 board member John Neilson repeatedly questioned Joiner at that session on the unexplained loss of more than 1,100 residents of District 9, which essentially changed the district from a white to black majority district.
At that time, Joiner blamed the loss partially on white flight from Mansfield to the North DeSoto area and subtle changes in voting precinct lines. Tommy Craig, who is white, represents the district.
But Joiner spent time over the weekend reconstructing the database from the 1990 Census and discovered in a review of District 9, which sits on the eastern side of Mansfield, that a handful of census blocks "didn't compute correctly." Joiner said he notified the Justice Department of his findings. .
Firing the first legal shot at a five-district Jefferson Parish Council structure, a group of residents filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday charging that the change would dilute the strength of African-American voters and asking the court to nullify the Nov. 5 election results that triggered the ongoing redistricting.
The much-anticipated lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in New Orleans by plaintiffs including two councilmen from Gretna and Westwego, says the parish did not get required federal approval before placing the new structure on the ballot. It asks the court to stop the council from holding a vote, scheduled for Feb. 12, to adopt a five-district plan.
The suit further complicates the ongoing political debate surrounding redistricting and gives citizens and officials more reasons to worry that the process could drag on long enough to affect the October council elections and extend the term of the current council beyond January 2004.
But plaintiffs said Tuesday they will seek a quick ruling.
"We don't want to delay the election," said Westwego Councilman Glenn Green, chairman of the Jefferson Citizens for Better Government, an unincorporated group listed in the suit as the principal plaintiff.
Gretna Councilman Jonathan Bolar is another plaintiff, as well as five other parish residents. Civil rights attorney Ron Wilson, who is representing the plaintiffs, was out of town Tuesday.
The lawsuit names the parish, Parish President Tim Coulon and all Parish Council members as defendants. Coulon could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Assistant Parish Attorney Debra Yenni said she had not seen the suit and could not comment.
Council members were divided as to what to do next. Councilmen Donald Jones and Nick Giambelluca, who are sponsoring one of the proposed five-district maps, dismissed the suit and urged the council to adopt a five-district plan next week.
"We do not believe the issues in the lawsuit have merit," Giambelluca said.
"This is insignificant to me," Jones said. "I want to do what the people of Jefferson Parish asked us to do, which is to vote and submit a 5-2 plan to the Justice Department."
But other council members worried about spending taxpayers' money defending the lawsuit. The parish spent more than $1 million on similar suits in the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of those cases produced the current six-district council structure.
"I don't think anybody in this parish wants to spend another $1 million," Councilman Lloyd Giardina said.
"The council should wait and see if the election is going to be declared valid or not before we go on," Councilman T.J. "Butch" Ward said.
How council members side in the issue likely will carry political implications, as most have said they plan to run for other offices in October. Opponents could attack council members if the parish takes on a slow and costly lawsuit, particularly as the parish tightens its budget to cope with a slowdown in revenues. But council members also would face criticism if they don't actively defend the parish, particularly since voters approved the five-district concept.
Legal experts said they could only speculate on whether the lawsuit is likely to be resolved in a few weeks or drag on for months.
The suit argues that the Nov. 5 election violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965, because the parish did not get approval from the U.S. Justice Department before placing Proposition 2, which concerned the new council structure, on the ballot. The measure, which voters approved 58 percent to 42 percent, changed the council structure from six district representatives and one parishwide seat to five districts and two at-large seats.
The parish sought preclearance in late September, but a federal response was not issued until two weeks after the election. Even then, Justice Department officials said they could not evaluate Proposition 2 without a specific map.
"That issue should not have been on the ballot without preclearance," said demographer Cedric Floyd, who helped organize Tuesday's lawsuit. Floyd said the plaintiffs are not challenging the election results in the other three propositions voters considered in November.
Baton Rouge attorney Ernest Johnson, a civil rights professor at Southern University and state president of the NAACP, said the Voting Rights Act is clear and Jefferson should have secured federal approval before the election.
"At this point, I would say the 5-2 structure is not valid," Johnson said. Council members "are wasting their time to even discuss it."
The suit also accuses the five-district plans of retrogression, or reducing the percentage of black residents in the 3rd District, which by court ruling must be kept as a mostly minority district. The current six-district plan sets the percentage of black residents in the district at 70 percent, but the percentage drops to less than 63 percent in all the five-district proposals.
"That's a pretty significant drop, but it's an issue the court would have to decide," said Mississippi civil rights attorney Robert McDuff, who has taken multiple redistricting cases to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Experts said a three-judge panel would consider the issue of preclearance before the court would delve into any discussion about retrogression or reduction in voting strength.
The suit also is likely to stir more political debate over the proposed plans themselves. Several West Jefferson residents, who have criticized the five-district maps in recent weeks, said Tuesday they hope the lawsuit kills the redistricting process.
"I wish (the plaintiffs) luck," said Joanne Mire, president of the Maplewood Civic Association, which participated in a similar suit against the parish in the 1990s. The group is not involved in the suit filed Tuesday.
National politics also could play a role, McDuff said, and it's not clear yet what position the Bush administration, through Attorney General John Ashcroft, has been taking in cases where issues about the voting rights of African-Americans are raised.
"Cases like this don't happen often, and I don't know how the Bush-Ashcroft Justice Department has been responding to questions like these," he said. . . . . . . .
Manuel Torres can be reached at [email protected] or (504) 826-3785.
Giving Jefferson Parish Council members an earful, West Jefferson residents and politicians lashed out Tuesday against proposals to create five new council districts, saying the plans would reduce their council representation and split many communities into two districts.
Dozens of residents, as well as public officials from the cities of Gretna and Westwego, attacked four proposed five-district plans at a public hearing that grew heated at times. Many criticized the council's decision to include the proposal in the November ballot despite an opposite recommendation by most of the Charter Advisory Board, and some asked the council to ditch its redistricting efforts and leave the parish's current six districts intact.
Each of the proposals calls for a council with five representatives from districts and two at-large members. The current council has six members from districts and one at-large member.
"I'd rather stick with the six districts, and I'm rooting for the Justice Department to keep it that way" by rejecting any 5-2 plan, said Gretna Mayor Ronnie Harris, who opposes suggestions to separate Gretna into two districts.
Under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the U.S. Justice Department must approve all redistricting plans in Louisiana and eight other states.
"You have not given us an opportunity to stay together in one district," said Joanne Mire, president of the Maplewood Civic Association in Harvey, which unsuccessfully sued the parish in the 1990s to try to locate the entire neighborhood in the same district. "We want to stay whole."
More than 60 people attended the hearing at the Gretna courthouse, a much larger group than the dozen or so that showed up at a redistricting hearing in East Jefferson last week. West Jefferson representatives said Tuesday's turnout reflected growing opposition to the proposed plans, two of which call for three East Jefferson-based districts and two in the West Bank.
"The West Bank virtually gives up a vote (in the council), no matter how you cut it," Harvey resident Leroy Ledet said.
The current six districts are evenly divided between East and West Jefferson areas, with a council chairman elected parishwide.
In a night in which council members got plenty of criticism, the only sympathy came from Parish President Tim Coulon, who said the council is "between a rock and a hard place" by having to follow the voters' mandate to create the new districts, while at the same time respecting their wishes to have term limits push the council and himself out of current office in January 2004.
But Coulon again urged the council to complete the redistricting as soon as possible and not take any action to delay the October elections.
"In addition to that (5-2) mandate, voters also have spoken to us in regards to extending term limits, and they certainly voted that down," Coulon said.
Federal officials must approve any new districts before qualifying begins Aug. 19 if a new plan is to be used for the October elections. The approval process can take several months, and several groups have threatened to file lawsuits against new districts.
Councilman Donald Jones, however, remained optimistic that the council will approve five new districts when it meets again Feb. 12.
"I know we're going to adopt something at the next council meeting," he said.
Jones said consensus is building among council members in favor of two of the four proposed maps. One map, sponsored by Jones and Councilman Nick Giambelluca, would create two districts in West Jefferson, two districts in East Jefferson, and another district that would draw 62.7 percent of its constituency from East Jefferson.
A map that several other council members seem to be favoring, Jones said, would be similar, except that its split district would draw 56 percent of its constituents from West Jefferson.
Some council members, however, have vowed to fight the current proposals. Councilman T.J. "Butch" Ward, who favors staying with the 6-1 structure, predicted legal battles to come.
"This is all going to end up in a big fat lawsuit," Ward said.
Maps of all four proposals, as well as the parish's current six districts, are posted on the parish's Web site at www.jeffparish.net.
Residents can e-mail comments to [email protected]
DeSoto School Board members will take the next week to mull options in their pursuit of a reapportionment plan that will meet with U.S. Justice Department approval.
Justice declined to preclear the plan because it noted what it perceived as a retrogression of minority districts.
The School Board has four minority districts; the plan submitted in the fall retains that number. However, Justice noted in its Dec. 31 rejection that Mansfield area District 9 should have a majority black population when applying the 2000 census figures.
"In the benchmark plan, yes, it is black. But the problem is it is only half a district," demographer Gary Joiner told board members during their almost two-hour work session, most of which was spent in detailed analysis of Justice's rejection letter.
District 9 is the prime example of a problem unique only to DeSoto, Joiner said. "Tremendous white influx" in the north DeSoto area caused radical population shifts; but the black population parishwide dropped by 2 percent, to 42 percent. Total parish population is 25,494.
The purpose of reapportionment, which comes after each 10-year census, is to equalize representation in the parish. Ideally, each of the 11 election districts should have about 2,318 people, plus or minus 5 percent. District 9 got out of balance - losing almost 1,200 citizens - through white flight from Mansfield and subtle changes in voting precinct lines.
Failure to have an acceptable redistricting map in place caused postponement of the board's October elections. Joiner estimates they have at least three months to reach a decision and stay on track with this fall's election schedule.
Reworking plans previously prepared but not submitted is high on board members' list to consider. Still, some took Justice to task for perceived inaccuracies in the denial letter.
DeSoto schools Superintendent Walter Lee clarified the board's actions in a letter presented to board members but said he would not send it until they decide their next move, possibly during the Feb. 6 meeting.
Creating a plan or contesting Justice's decision in court are other options noted by Joiner. He cautioned against the latter, pointing to the $500,000 in attorney fees incurred by the Bossier Parish School Board in its court challenge during the 1990s.
Two additional plans created by Joiner, referred to as Plans 6 and 19, appear to meet criteria mentioned by Justice, Joiner said. Both have five majority black districts, with District 9 reaching a 58.45 percent minority population. Both plans included additional voting precinct splits, which the Police Jury objected to. Jurors have to approve any precinct splits.
BATON ROUGE - The ruling by a three-judge panel last week refusing to accept Louisiana's plan to redraw state House districts sent signals back to Louisiana lawmakers.
What those signals are, however, depend wholly on what side of the debate each falls.
House Speaker Charlie DeWitt, for example, says the ruling was expected and provides no indication on what the court may do next when opponents of the plan file a motion to reject it - a move scheduled for today or Tuesday.
Members of the Legislative Black Caucus, which sponsored the lawsuit challenging the proposal, say the federal court's ruling is a clear sign the plan is flawed and legislators should be prepared to take another shot at redrawing the lines when they meet again in regular session in March.
"There was no surprise in that (ruling)," DeWitt, D-Alexandria, said. "We had hoped they would approve the plan, but we figured they probably wouldn't."
The strategy of House lawyers has always been to be proactive in the fight to get approval of the redistricting plan required by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, DeWitt said.
Under the U.S. Constitution, the Legislature was required to redraw the district lines for each of the 105 House seats and the 39 Senate seats, as well as other elected district seats of state representative bodies after the 2000 Census.
The federal Voting Rights Act required the state to get approval of the newly drawn districts before any elections are held to assure that opportunities for minority representation have been provided. The House plan is the only one statewide still without approval.
Qualifying for the next House of Representatives election is planned for August. That deadline increases the pressure to get a plan approved by the federal government as quickly as possible.
Having been rejected by the U.S. Justice Department for plans submitted over the past three decades, frustrated House leaders chose to skip the submission to Justice and head to district court, an alternative provided by the Voting Rights Act.
After hearing arguments Wednesday, the judicial panel in Washington, D.C., refused to approve the House plan. The court, instead, urged opponents of the plan to file a motion to reject.
And that is where the disagreement begins.
While DeWitt and other members of the leadership say the ruling was anticipated, members of the Black Caucus say the court's inclination was clearly to reject the plan, forcing the Legislature to take up the issue again.
"I don't know what (conclusion) you draw at this point. It's my appreciation that they asked the other side to file a motion to reject," Rep. Jerry LeBlanc, D-Lafayette, said, adding the court apparently could not reject the plan without a motion urging it to do so.
"I think it's a very likely possibility the courts will reject the plan," said Rep. Lydia Jackson, D-Shreveport. "And I question the judgment of those folks who chose to go to court rather than through the Justice Department for pre-clearance."
Jackson, a member of the Black Caucus, said, "It suggests to me they knew they had a bad plan." Another Caucus member who attended the court hearing, Rep. Richard Gallot Jr., D-Ruston, said the impression he got from the intensity and focus of the judges' questioning of House attorney Deanne Ross was that they would probably reject the plan.
Ross argued that a majority black district in New Orleans was eliminated because its continued existence would have provided over-representation of black residents while unfairly denying white city dwellers proportional representation, Gallot said.
"The judges did not seem to buy into that argument," he said.
Morrell, D-New Orleans, and others said the primary focus of the judges' questions was on the fact that the redistricting plan submitted reduced the number of minority districts from 27 to 26, an apparent violation of the Voting Rights Act called retrogression. Statewide, the black population increased 11 percent from 1990 to 2000.
"Some of the questions that were asked during our reapportionment debate ... (underscored) that it appeared to be, on its face, retrogression," Rep. Rick Farrar, D-Pineville, said.
Farrar recalled that critics also questioned taking the plan to court rather than going to Justice for a faster review, given that "we were going to be facing election when it is rejected."
LeBlanc said, however, "We had the luxury this time of not having to just swallow what Justice gave us."
In prior redistricting battles, the Legislature was squeezed for time to complete the plan, submit it for preclearance, get it rejected, redraw it, gain approval and run for re-election, he said.
The three-judge panel assured the parties that any ruling will be issued in advance of the 2003 regular legislative session where a new plan could be drawn, if necessary
Metro Councilman Ulysses "Bones" Addison threw a wrinkle into the Metro Councilís reapportionment efforts Wednesday by introducing two new plans moments before a committee was to begin discussing four options already widely circulated.
"I just want to submit these for the record and for your consideration," Addison said.
Addisonís proposals took several council members aback. Councilmen Pat Culbertson and David Boneno left the council dais to examine maps of the plans, that Addison taped to the wall.
They came back to the table quickly, in plenty of time for the committeeís unanimous vote to pass the issue along to the council Nov. 14 with no recommendation.
"I donít want to have a plan submitted at the last moment which I have not had time to look at, nor has our legal counsel had a chance to look at," Councilman Jim Benham said.
The council has to reapportion itself by March so the parishís population is more evenly distributed among the council districts. Demographic changes since the 1990 redistricting has made district populations uneven.
The six-member Finance and Executive Committee was scheduled to discuss which reapportionment plan to recommend for the full councilís Wednesdayís meeting.
Right now, five districts are majority black in overall population, but in only four of those do black people make up a majority of registered voters.
Four plans had been on the table for weeks, each one a conservative tweaking of existing council districts. All would have four districts where black voters make up the majority and eight where white voters do.
Both of Addisonís proposals, according to racial breakdowns he provided, feature five districts with black majorities in both population and number of voters.
Most council members got their first look at the new plans when Addison introduced them during the committee meeting. Addison said both of his plans call for more geographically and racially coherent districts than anything already before the council.
"I got the information, and we used the redistricting software to examine how we could do this better," Addison said.
A one-year reapportionment deadline started when the 2000 U.S. Census results came back in March.
The census showed East Baton Rouge Parish has 412,852 residents. That means the reapportionment goal is to draw 12 districts, each with an optimal population of 34,404, in a way that accurately reflects the racial balance of the parish.
The parishís population is 56.2 percent white and 40.1 percent black.
The four reapportionment plans drawn up by Council Administrator Brian Mayers and the quasi-governmental Capital Region Planning Commission between March and October gave the parish four districts with black people making up the majority of voters. Thatís the same number of districts as in 1990, when black people accounted for 34.8 percent of the parish population.
Black council members had argued before Wednesday that the parishís 40.1 percent black population meant five of the 12 Metro Council districts should have black voting majorities.
Addisonís proposal is the first official proposal with five such districts.
Addisonís decision to draw up the plan independently of Mayersí office dismayed Boneno, who joined with committee members Benham, Culbertson and Chairman Mike Walker in saying that the Capital Region Planning Commission and attorneys needed to analyze both new plans before the council does anything.
All four are white. Addison is black, as is fellow committee member Councilman Charles Kelly. While Kelly backed Addison on all statements supporting the new plans, the four white members suggested being cautious.
"I donít want to vote for a plan at any time that has not been vetted," Culbertson said.
Culbertson added that he feared reapportionment might come down to a flurry of precinct-by-precinct redistricting during a council meeting if some ground rules arenít established.
Benham and Culbertson suggested the full council set a deadline for any plans to be submitted before serious discussions start so all sides will have a chance to analyze everything on the table.
At a time of national emergency, the blatant self-interest of the Legislatureís reapportionment session appears more sordid than usual. Its redeeming feature is the leadershipís absolute frankness about motive.
As he urged approval of the final congressional redistricting plan, Sen. Jay Dardenne, R-Baton Rouge, summed it up: "This is a political process."
Boy, was it ever.
It was approved as the final act of a session devoted to protection of incumbents, with only an occasional diversion caused by members seeking to fashion districts that might improve their chances of seeking higher office later on.
With many senior members of the Legislature facing term limits in the 2007 election, this session saw more than a little quiet planning ahead.
House or Senate members might want to swap jobs down the road or try to move up to Congress.
Every bit of potential advantage was sought.
If it was not achieved, it was only because members higher up the legislative food chain, or the influential members of the congressional delegation, had their way instead.
To the extent that the public interest intruded on the game, it was because some parishes or cities were angry at being split between two, or among several, jurisdictions.
Some believe that a community is better off with two or more members, of Congress or of the Legislature, with an interest in its roads or other projects.
Others believe that a community needs one member who will be more focused on its concerns than several members.
While itís true that old political boundaries may be as arbitrary as newly gerrymandered districts, the better part of the argument is that many, not all, but many, traditional parish lines, and city boundaries almost all the time, tend to reflect a commonality of interest that ought to be one of the key goals of redistricting plans.
This is not always mathematically possible; congressional districts, for instance, are required by law to have as close to equal population as possible. That inevitably means splitting some parishes.
There is also the intrusive impact of the Voting Rights Act, a federal law that has resulted in the creation of many districts with black voters in the majority. This has tended to concentrate black voters in a relatively few districts.
All that being true, there is a better way to do reapportionment. State law should be changed to appoint a nonpartisan commission of reasonably disinterested citizens to draw up a reapportionment plan based on the next census.
The commission would be charged with meeting reasonable rules of reapportionment. Those would have to include compliance with the Voting Rights Act but should emphasize keeping traditional political boundaries intact and contiguous, avoiding the gerrymandered districts that sprawl across parishes and towns in search of favorable precincts for specific politicians.
Let the chips fall where they may, with the commissionís report adopted or rejected as a whole, to prevent individual members from hijacking the process.
A similar process is used by the federal government in deciding whether to close military bases. A bipartisan commission of government elders is appointed and it draws up a package of base-closing recommendations for the Department of Defense and the president. Submitted to the Congress, a single vote is required on the whole package, without amendments.
That reduces the chance that political log-rolling will occur and powerful members could derail the whole proposal based on personal self-interest.
Districts would apt to look much different if a nonpartisan plan is submitted, but that would be a much better way to redraw district lines, or at least much better than the way it was done this year by the Legislature.
Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His e-mail address is [email protected]