As Holder-Backed Suit Seeks to Redraw Congressional Boundaries, State Questions Whether Proposed Solution Is Feasible

Eric Holder / Getty Images
October 20, 2018

The shape of Louisiana’s Second Congressional District is a long and skinny bit of geography, running largely from east to west from New Orleans, until its western edge juts sharply north to encompass a good chunk of Baton Rouge.

To the uninitiated eye, it may be hard to understand what would lead those who drew the congressional boundaries to come up with such a convoluted shape. But according to a federal lawsuit from a group associated with former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the odd-shaped map has one simple purpose – to reduce the electoral power of African-American voters in Louisiana.

The lawsuit was filed in June in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana on behalf of nine African-American plaintiffs. The defendant in the suit is interim Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, in his capacity as the top election official in the state.

According to the lawsuit, the contorted shape of the Second Congressional District was designed to capture as many African-American voters as possible within one district, thereby preventing any other district from having an African-American majority.

Louisiana has six congressional districts, and the 2nd District, represented by U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, is the only one with an African-American representative in Congress.

"[The congressional map] dilutes African-American voting strength and denies African-American voters in Louisiana the equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice for the U.S. House of Representatives in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act," the lawsuit states. "Plaintiffs seek to enjoin Defendant from enforcing the 2011 Congressional Plan and from administering any elections under the illegal map."

The lawsuit states that Louisiana’s African-American population made up about 32.6 percent of the overall state population in 2010.

"Even though Louisiana had maintained a substantial African-American population, the Louisiana State Legislature chose to limit minority voting strength and political influence by 'packing' African-American voters into one majority-minority district and 'cracking' them among other districts in the 2011 Congressional Plan, instead of unifying them to form an additional majority-minority district," the lawsuit says.

The Louisiana lawsuit on behalf of the nine plaintiffs was filed by Holder's National Redistricting Foundation, in addition to similar suits in Alabama and Georgia. In a tweet announcing the move, Holder claimed that the current districts were essentially disenfranchising minority voters in the three states.

The Louisiana Attorney General’s Office, which is defending Ardoin against the lawsuit, filed a motion to have it dismissed in September. The motion argues that the lawsuit improperly seeks to avoid having a three-judge panel hear the case and that with only the 2020 elections at stake, the entire legal question will soon be rendered moot after the maps are redrawn in the standard redistricting process.

"This Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure ... because Plaintiffs lack standing to bring these claims," the motion to dismiss continues. "Furthermore, the Plaintiffs never sufficiently allege that a second compact congressional district can be created in Louisiana."

The motion points out that previous attempts to draw congressional maps for Louisiana that included two majority-minority districts were thrown out by federal courts as racial gerrymandering.

The lawsuit describes Louisiana’s history as that of a state hostile to African-American voting rights, including the current congressional map as part of that pattern. It claims that the shapes of the 5th District and 6th District were manipulated to prevent the aggregation of a number of African-American communities.

"In particular, [the 5th District] … stops short of uniting the northern African-American population centers of Tensas, Madison, and East Carroll with the more southern African-American population centers by carving out parts of East Feliciana, West Feliciana, and St. Helena from its district, and splitting these parishes between [the 5th and 6th Districts]," the lawsuit says.

The Louisiana lawsuit is the latest in a series of legal battles that have been playing out in courthouses across the nation as the topic of "gerrymandering" has entered the national conversation. Put simply, the practice is one that has been pursued by both Democratic and Republican majorities in statehouses where they hold the majority and have the power to draw congressional and state legislative maps in such a way that they can retain power even if voters turn against them.

Two cases related to gerrymandering were decided in June by the U.S. Supreme Court, in Wisconsin and Maryland, without justices taking any action that would have thrown out existing maps. And earlier this year, the court twice opted not to intervene in a case where the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had thrown out that state’s congressional maps and imposed new ones.

At stake as the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives and in statehouses across the country. Redrawn maps could put districts that have long been solidly in the hands of one party or the other in play for the first time in years or decades.

Reacting to the Louisiana lawsuit, state Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, expressed that the move against the current map was contrary to what minority advocates had traditionally sought.

"How ironic, there were lawsuits to create minority majority districts in the first place," he wrote on Twitter. "Now they don't like the result so they cry discrimination and run back to court. Someone should tell these folks to be careful what you ask for."

The lawsuit, Johnson v. Ardoin, asks the court to throw out the existing map and require the creation of a new map with two congressional districts that have a majority African-American population. It also requests attorney fees, courts costs and damages on behalf of the plaintiffs.