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NAACP sues for minority judgeship in Terrebonne

10th February 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Mason Harrison
Contributing Writer

The longstanding fight for judicial equity in America’s courtrooms is underway in Terrebonne Parish after attorneys representing the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a Feb. 3 challenge in federal court to the parish’s at-large system of electing state judges, which the plaintiffs contend prevents Black candidates from securing parish-wide elected positions because of racially polarized voting. The suit names Louisiana’s attorney general, Buddy Caldwell; secretary of state, Tom Schedler; and governor, Bobby Jindal, as defendants in the case and seeks to implement a district-based voting system.

“Section II of the Voting Rights Act allows us to challenge at-large voting systems where there is a minority community that is compact and that will coalesce around a particular candidate that could lead to minority representation,” says Leah Aden, an attorney with the legal defense fund with knowledge of the case. “We have to establish that there is a geographic area where people have interests in common and that those people have demonstrated a certain voting pattern, but who have been unsuccessful in electing the candidates of their choice because of the number of white voters who oppose those candidates.”

A statement released by the defense fund outlines the history of racialized voting in Terrebonne Parish and uses previous election data to support its case against the parish’s at-large balloting on behalf of the Terrebonne Parish branch of the NAACP and area Black voters, many of whom live in and around the boundaries of Houma, La., the largest city in the parish. “Given that white voters in the parish overwhelmingly do not vote for candidates that Black voters support,” according to the statement announcing the lawsuit, “Black candidates cannot win a parish-wide election under the current electoral system.”

The lawyers in the case, who have been joined by New Orleans attorney Ronald L. Wilson in litigating the legal challenge, add that “in 2004, a Black candidate lost an election for the 32nd Judicial District Court after receiving substantial support (72%) from Black voters in Terrebonne, but securing just 1 percent of the vote from white voters in the Parish. That candidate lost the election to a white candidate.” The 32nd Judicial District Court has never seated a Black judge due to voting patterns along racial lines and other cases exist to support the trend, the plaintiffs argue, including a 2011 race for tax assessor in which a Black candidate garnered more than 70 percent of Black votes, but just 2.5 percent of white ballots.

“People in Terrebonne Parish have tried not to go to court for the past 15 years,” Aden says, “by trying to get the state Legislature to increase the size of the court and add a seat that is based in a district where Black voters can select candidates of their choosing. They’ve even tried to add another seat to a city court in Houma that has parish-wide jurisdiction that would also be based in a district with minority voters. Each of these efforts has failed and so this matter is now headed to federal court to be decided.”

Compounding the frustration of Black voters, according to the released statement, is the 2004 suspension of state District Judge Timothy Ellender who wore blackface, an Afro wig, and a prison jumpsuit to a Halloween party in Houma. Ellender was suspended for a year without pay, but was reelected to the bench by parish voters. “This case is about finally providing an opportunity for me and other voters of color in Terrebonne Parish to elect judges who are both guided by fairness and are accountable to us,” said Jerome Boykin, who heads the Terrebonne Parish branch of the NAACP, in the statement from the defense fund. “We simply have not had that in Terrebonne,” Boykin added, “as the suspension and subsequent reelection of a sitting judge, who publicly mocked Black people, clearly demonstrates.

“The remedy that we are seeking,” Aden says, “is not necessarily the right approach in every case. The issue of voting rights must be taken on a case-by-case basis, but there is clear precedent for what we are trying to achieve. In 1988, the case of Clark v. Edwards established district-level voting in several Louisiana jurisdictions where qualified Black judicial candidates could not win election because of parish-wide voting systems. In addition, the state’s chief justice, Bernette Johnson, has come into her position because of legal challenges that created district-based voting to allow for increased minority representation. So, this is not something that we are coming up with out of the blue and something that is out of the ordinary.”

A representative for secretary of state, Tom Schedler, said his office had just become aware of the suit and could not comment prior to reviewing the complaint and a spokesperson for attorney general, Buddy Caldwell, would not comment on open litigation. Repre­sentatives for Gov. Bobby Jindal could not be reached. A date for arguments in the case before a federal court in Baton Rouge has not been scheduled.

Wilson, who was instrumental in securing the legal victory that created the judicial seat currently held by Chief Justice Johnson, summed up the legal challenge to Terrebonne Parish’s voting system as a matter essential to buttressing confidence in the legal process in that part of southeast Louisiana. “The unfortunate reality,” Wilson said in the statement from the defense fund, “is that in Terre­bonne Parish, the courthouse has been closed to Black candidates who aspire to serve as judges. We seek to fundamentally change that reality and to instill confidence in the 32nd Judicial District Court in this lawsuit.”

This article originally published in the February 10, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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