A federal appeals court in New Orleans has overturned a lower court ruling calling for a majority Black judgeship election district in a south Louisiana parish.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal said there was “weak evidence” of discriminatory dilution of Black votes in majority white Terrebonne Parish, in a ruling posted Monday evening.
The three-judge panel overturned U.S. District Judge James Brady's 2017 ruling that the system for electing judges in the coastal parish south of New Orleans was unconstitutional.
The state had defended the “at-large” system of parish-wide judicial elections, noting in briefs that after the 2014 lawsuit was filed, a Black judge, Juan Pickett, was elected in an uncontested election in Terrebonne Parish.
Plaintiffs, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, countered that there was a history of Black candidates losing in parish-wide elections. And they noted that Pickett's predecessor, Timothy Ellender, had been re-elected to his final term after having once been suspended by the state Supreme Court for having worn blackface and a prison jumpsuit to a Halloween party.
The appeals court cited past rulings that the state has a legitimate interest in maintaining parish-wide judicial districts to avoid any appearance of bias toward “the parochial interests of a narrow constituency.”
“Specifically, the court erred in holding that weak evidence of vote dilution could overcome the state’s substantial interest in linking judicial positions to the judges’ parish-wide jurisdiction, and it erroneously equated failed legislative attempts to create subdistricts ... with a racially discriminatory intent,” Judge Edith Jones wrote for a panel including judges Kyle Duncan and Patrick Higginbotham.
Monday's decision could be appealed to the full 5th Circuit or to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Racial discrimination clearly exists in Terrebonne where no Black candidate has ever been elected in a contested, parishwide election,” Leah Aden, deputy director of litigation with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said in an emailed statement later posted to the organization's web page.
“This is disappointing, and we are considering all options,” Aden also said.
Earlier versions of this story had an incorrect spelling of Leah Aden's name.