In the half-century since the parish moved to an at-large system, only one black judge, Juan Pickett, has ever been elected to the 32nd District Court. That he ran unopposed has been taken by state officials as proof of a black candidate’s ability to win elections. Yet, the previous judge in that seat, Timothy Ellender, stepped down after years of incidents: He wore blackface and prison shackles to a Halloween party—the state Supreme Court sent him afterward to racial-sensitivity training—and engaged in behavior so bizarre as to constitute a sustained legal miscarriage of justice. Pickett’s success, then, really seems to highlight the almost absurd sequence of events that had to take place for just one black victory.
To be sure, Louisiana state officials characterize the NAACP lawsuit, which LDF lawyers are arguing in court this week, as a weak case at best. They cite that the black minority is neither large nor compact enough to constitute an aggrieved voting block as described in VRA requirements. But the NAACP and LDF argue that their objections are undermined by the timing of the at-large shift, as well as the fact that other parish-wide voter schemes passed at the same time—like a 1969 bond vote restricted to property owners—have been considered unconstitutional by the nation’s highest courts. According to testimony in the Terrebonne Parish Branch NAACP, et al. v. Edwards, et al. trial this week from historian Allan J. Lichtman, black Terrebonne Parish residents also successfully sued to stop at-large school-district elections in the 1970s. He said the DOJ has since found that coherent black districts can be made in the parish, despite the state rejecting attempts to do so. If that’s validated by the court on Friday, it could trigger an at-large voting ban.
The implications for this case go beyond the judicial ramifications of having a representative elected court. The fact of the matter is that in the South, white voters simply don’t vote for candidates favored by black voters, and in places with a majority of white voters, like Terrebonne Parish, perhaps the easiest way to lose an election is to be endorsed by black voters. This sort of “racially polarized voting” is one of the core triggers and purposes of the VRA, and it’s getting worse 52 years out from its passage, not better. While it seems a minor brushfire over a district court, the decision in the NAACP lawsuit is yet another test of the ability of the courts to enforce the spirit of the VRA.
That test matters, especially as at-large voting has been tried in other areas after 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court ruling rendered preclearance essentially moot. Just after the decision, conservatives in Beaumont, Texas, finalized implementation of an at-large voting system for its school board after the ouster of four black members. Also in 2013, the city of Pasadena, Texas, redistricted its eight city-council districts into six districts and two at-large seats, a move that not only diluted the voting power of Latino voters by enlarging districts, but also did so by the addition of at-large seats. That move was found discriminatory by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas earlier this year.