Trial begins in Louisiana judicial election voting rights case

In February 2014, the local branch of the NAACP in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, filed a federal civil rights action alleging that the system used to elect judges in the state’s 32nd Judicial District violated the federal Voting Rights and the U.S. Constitution.  More than three years and several procedural twists later, the case went to trial this week in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana.

Terrebonne Parish currently elects all five of its state judges using an “at-large” system, meaning that all judges are chosen by a parish-wide vote even though each judge presides over a specific division of the court.  Plaintiffs argue that this system disenfranchises minority voters, and are seeking to replace it with five judge-specific voting districts, one of which would be a minority district.

Aside from the substantive importance of the parties’ positions, this case is another interesting example of federal challenges to state judicial election practices.

Since 2002, the Supreme Court has decided key cases at the intersection of state judicial elections and federal law, including challenges to restrictions on the speech of judicial candidates, political party control over judicial candidacies, and the appearance of judicial impropriety following an elected judge’s failure to recuse.  Although certain Justices have pointedly criticized the election of state judges, the Court has never suggested that the practice is itself unconstitutional.  In the meantime, collateral challenges like the NAACP case continue.

In February 2016, the parish itself sought to intervene in the lawsuit, but the motion to intervene was denied.  Trial started Monday; the local paper, Houma Today, is providing detailed coverage.

The case is Terrebonne Parish Branch NAACP et al. v. Jindal et al., Civ. No. 3:14-cv-00069.  Docket highlights can be found here.

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