Federal appeals court holds arguments in Robinson case 

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to decide what happens next in Louisiana fight for fair maps

Federal appeals court judges in New Orleans conducted a thorough examination on Friday, closely interrogating voting rights advocates and attorneys representing the state of Louisiana. The central issue under scrutiny was whether Louisiana is obligated to adhere to the court-ordered approach, similar to Alabama’s, in the creation of a new congressional district with a predominantly Black population. Additionally, the judges delved into the timeline for the implementation of this mandate and its significance in preparation for next year’s elections.

The case – Robinson v. Ardoin –  has been on hold while the United States Supreme Court weighed its decision in Alabama’s Allen v. Milligan case, which was nearly identical to Louisiana’s. 

In Louisiana, Black individuals constitute one-third of the entire population. This case presents an opportunity to establish two congressional districts out of the total six, where Black voters can elect representatives of their preference.

SCOTUS ruled 5-4 in the Allen v. Milligan case on June 8, 2022, that Alabama’s maps did violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which paved the way for Robinson v. Ardoin to proceed. 

Robinson v. Ardoin was filed after the Louisiana legislature passed a congressional map in March 2022 that included just one out of six districts with a majority of Black voters. This was particularly troubling because Louisiana’s Black population has seen growth and now comprises roughly one-third of the state’s population, according to data from the 2020 Census. Louisiana has also seen a pattern of racially polarized voting that has diluted Black voting power in other Congressional districts. 

After the adoption of the map, a lawsuit was filed challenging the Louisiana congressional map under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The plaintiffs in this case include the Louisiana State Conference of the NAACP, Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, as well as individuals named Press Robinson, Dorothy Nairne, E. René Soulé, Alice Washington, and Clee Ernest Lowe.

The focus of Friday’s hearing revolved around an injunction issued by a federal judge, which is currently being contested by Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin and Attorney General Jeff Landry.

In 2022, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick issued this injunction, expressing concerns that a congressional map crafted by the Republican-majority Legislature that year was likely in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

It is unclear what direction the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals will take in the case with several options being on the table. 

During Friday’s proceedings, Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod, part of a three-judge panel presiding over the case at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, floated the idea that the injunction, mandating a new congressional map for the 2024 elections, might remain in effect. Simultaneously, there could be a trial on the substantive issues of the case that could potentially lead to further adjustments to the map before the 2026 elections. However, Elrod also hinted at the possibility that the court might dismiss the 2022 injunction, instead opting for an expedited trial process, with the aim of resolving the issues well before the upcoming elections in the next year.

During the oral arguments, the state did say it did not feel that Alabama’s and Louisiana’s cases were the same. 

Attorney Phillip Strach, representing Ardoin, made the case that creating a single district by connecting far-apart regions solely based on race is not acceptable. He argued that the proposed Black district, which links parts of Baton Rouge to the rural Delta area in northern Louisiana, goes against established court rules for keeping districts compact.

The Delta area is Louisiana’s equivalent to Alabama’s Black Belt, which has been deemed a community of interest by the federal courts. 

Strach said that the plaintiffs were attempting to connect black populations in the Delta by using whole parishes as “white land bridges” to achieve that. 

At one point Strach, responding to Judge Elrod, said that SCOTUS ruled that the Black Belt in Alabama was a community of interest not because of race, but because of its soil, and there was no argument made like in Louisiana where the court is trying to stitch together black populations to form a community of interest based on skin color. 

“What they tried to do through their expert, Mr. Anthony Fairfax; well, they tried to say, well, socioeconomic factors make this a compact population,” he said. “But that’s wrong.”

Judge Southwick said that it was appropriate to focus on different factors to achieve a community of interest. 

“Why is what you did right and what Chief Judge Dick did wrong?” Southwick asked. 

Strach said that the district court made a legal mistake in applying the population compactness requirements under Gingles 1. 

“That’s a separate question,” Southwick said. “I’m looking at what’s the right community to be looking at. Is it socioeconomic? Is it something else? And it seems to me that she made at least some findings that this was the right way that we would join the parishes that she joined that would satisfy a community of interest.”

Judge Elrod pushed Strach about what he was saying was the legal mistake made by the U.S. District Court. 

Strach said that the court approved or allowed the plaintiffs to use the illustrious districts that did not contain geographically compact population to demonstrate the violation.  

Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that there are distinct characteristics and examples that connect Baton Rouge to the Delta including similar social and economic interests. 

Attorney for the plaintiffs Stuart Naifeh said that Milligan was similar in that it connected the urban area of Mobile with the rural area of the Alabama Black Belt, where in Louisiana they are connecting Baton Rouge with the Delta. He said that the District Court did not address how Mobile was split. 

Naifeh said the way that Baton Rouge is divided in the illustrious map is the way that it is divided in the state’s map, but they are including more of East Baton Rouge parish in the new district so they aren’t carving out just the northern part of the city. 

“There is evidence that there are shared interests in the population of  East Baton Rouge and the Delta in that they perform as a community of interest such that redrawing the district would provide an opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice,” Naifeh said. 

He said that it includes most of the Delta parishes and most of the Black population in the Delta. 

Abha Khanna, an attorney with the Elias Law Group, one of the firms representing the plaintiffs, who have sued the state, argued the importance of upholding the injunction and getting the new map drawn. 

“The plaintiffs should not be forced to play chicken with the election calendar,” she said.

Judges pressed the state on giving a deadline of when they need the new map, if one is granted, for it to be used in the 2024 election. 

After a little bit of uncertainty, the state said by the end of May 2024. 

Judge Elrod Naifeh, who represents the Robinson plaintiffs, if there was standing due to the NAACP having members across each of the districts. 

He said they have plaintiffs in each of the districts that will be used to draw the new district. 

She also asked Naifeh why they shouldn’t remand and have a trial before the end of the year.

“It’s far from clear that there could be trials on the merits by the end of year,” he said. “There would need to be a remedial process. This interim map we are asking for may never be used.”

The goal is to ensure that the map that is in place for the 2024 election has two majority black congressional districts. 

Southwick asked Naifeh if there needed to be a trial based on what happened in Alabama saying the briefing did not say anything about a trial. 

“Is this really the same issue as Alabama?” Southwick said. 

Naifeh said there is one relevant difference: the court asked the state of Alabama when they needed the maps and an answer was given, but the state of Louisiana had not done that yet. 

Naifeh also said the plaintiffs had not issue with the state of Louisiana redrawing a map as it is one of the state’s functions to conduct redistricting; however, the concern is that they have used it as a delay tactic to put the new maps too close to the deadline to use in the 2024 election. 

Now, Louisianans will have to wait for the 5th Circuit to make a decision. 

Ashley Shelton, founder of Power Coalition for Equity & Justice said that it was important that the people get all the power that belongs to them. 

“With the second largest black population per capita – 33 percent – it is really important to us to make sure that with this congressional map that not only do we get two minority districts, but that we get all the power that belongs to black and other communities of color to be able to elect candidates of their choice that understand their experience and the issues and the needs of their communities,” she said. 

Jared Evans, senior policy counsel for NAACP LDF, who is representing the Robinson plaintiffs said they were confident after the hearing in the case they presented. 

“This is the case we have been litigating for over two years now to get my home state of Louisiana  a second majority black Congressional district. The 2020 Census results showed that the black population increased and that we can draw a map with two majority black congressional districts. We came in confident (to the hearing) and are leaving confident. We built a really, really strong record. The facts are on our side, the law is on our side and the record is on our side.” 

Laketa Smith, executive director of A Bella LaFemme Society, said she was feeling optimistic about the court hearing. 

“The judges actually listened to both sides of the arguments, we are looking at actually having a fair map by the elections of 2024,” she said. “Our team made a really great opening arguments. It can be kind of emotional when you are doing this work and wanting to make sure that this happens. You can always tell when it’s a good day because everyone is still trickling out of the courtroom. This is a fight we have to continue.”

Lady Carlson, lead organizer for Westside Sponsoring Committee said they are hopeful the 5th Circuit will decide in their favor. 

“I think the argument about not enough time is disingenuous by the state,” she said. “And so I’m hoping the judges will not fall for that. It’s very interesting that the state made the argument about Baton Rouge not being a community of interest with the Delta. People from Lake Providence move to Baton Rouge, there all kinds of relationships across the state. There are Baptist conventions that include the northern part of the state along with the southern state. They are communities of interest.” 


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