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Federal Judges Block Newly Drawn Louisiana Congressional Map

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Federal Judges Block Newly Drawn Louisiana Congressional Map

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A newly drawn congressional map in Louisiana was struck down on Tuesday by a panel of federal judges who found that the new boundaries, which form a second majority Black district in the state, amounted to an “impermissible racial gerrymander” that violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The 2-to-1 ruling now leaves uncertain which boundaries will be used in elections that are just six months away and that could play a critical role in determining the balance of power in the House of Representatives.

Critics warned that the decision could have broader implications on voting rights. Eric H. Holder Jr., the former U.S. attorney general and current chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said the “ideological nature of the decision could not be more clear.”

Louisiana’s attorney general, Liz Murrill, a Republican, indicated on Tuesday that the case could advance to the U.S. Supreme Court. “I’ve said all along the Supreme Court needs to clear this up,” she wrote on social media.

The judges have scheduled a hearing on May 6 to discuss next steps. The Louisiana secretary of state has ordered that the congressional map be finalized by May 15.

The new districts had been outlined in January during a special session of the State Legislature. Lawmakers had been ordered to sketch out the new boundaries after a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that the previous map had very likely violated the Voting Rights Act by diluting the voting power of Black residents.

But the new maps went before another panel of federal judges after a group of residents scattered across the new congressional district who describe themselves as “non-African American” voters challenged the maps. They argued that lawmakers had moved to “segregate voters based entirely on their races,” and to achieve that they stitched together “communities in far-flung regions of Louisiana.”

The new majority Black district cuts across a long, narrow swath that reaches from Baton Rouge, the capital city in the toe of Louisiana’s boot, to Shreveport, in the northwest corner of the state. About 54 percent of the district’s population is Black.

In the ruling on Tuesday, Judges David C. Joseph and Robert R. Summerhays, both of the Western District of Louisiana, acknowledged that factors other than race, like protecting certain incumbents, had figured into the process. Even so, they said, it was evident that creating a second district with a majority of Black voters was lawmakers’ overarching objective.

“The predominate role of race in the state’s decisions,” the judges wrote, “is reflected in the statements of legislative decision makers, the division of cities and parishes along racial lines, the unusual shape of the district and the evidence that the contours of the district were drawn to absorb sufficient numbers of Black-majority neighborhoods to achieve the goal of a functioning majority Black district.”

The judges noted that the ruling did not decide “whether it is feasible to create a second majority Black district in Louisiana that would comply” with the Equal Protection Clause. But they added that the Voting Rights Act “never requires race to predominate in drawing congressional districts at the sacrifice of traditional districting principles.”

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Carl E. Stewart of the Fifth Circuit argued that the challengers had failed to prove that their constitutional rights were violated.

“The totality of the record,” he wrote, “demonstrates that the Louisiana Legislature weighed various political concerns — including protecting of particular incumbents — alongside race, with no factor predominating over the other.”

The ruling is the latest wrinkle in the lengthy legal battle over the shape of Louisiana’s congressional districts and comes as other Southern states have also been forced by courts to redraw district lines amid accusations of racial discrimination.

Louisiana was obligated to redraw congressional districts after the 2020 census to take into account population changes. The census had found that the Black population in the state had increased by 3.8 percent over the past decade, meaning that roughly a third of the overall population was Black. But in the map drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature, only one of the six congressional districts had a majority Black population.

In June 2022, a federal judge found that the map had been racially gerrymandered and illegally weakened the electoral power of Black voters. The judge ordered lawmakers to create another district that would give Black voters the chance to elect a candidate of their choice. But the disputed map was still used in the 2022 election.

Other Southern states had also been ordered to redraw maps after a surprise U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year in which the justices threw out Alabama’s congressional boundaries, finding that they did not adequately account for the state’s Black population. The ruling reaffirmed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which had been diminished over the years by the court’s conservative majority.

Critics of Tuesday’s ruling argued that the repercussions in Louisiana could extend beyond a single election, or even partisan divisions. Ashley Shelton, who leads the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, which was part of the challenge to the original 2020 map, said she and others remained undeterred.

“We will continue to fight for a map that reflects our communities, that honors the promise of the Voting Rights Act,” Ms. Shelton said, “and that respects the voices of thousands of Louisianians who have engaged throughout the redistricting process. We have been clear since day one in our call for a fair and representative map.”



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