Parish districts gain Justice Dept. clearance

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 6, 2011



LAPLACE – The U.S. Justice Department has issued pre-clearance to redistricting plans for various Louisiana parishes, including recent approval of new district boundaries in St. John the Baptist, St. Charles and St. James parishes.

Justice Department clearance for redistricting is mandatory for all southern states with a past history of racial discrimination to ensure the federal Voter Rights Act is not violated. Reapportionment of local government districts are required every 10 years to account for population changes based on census counts.

The St. James Parish Council’s redistricting plan based on 2010 census figures was the latest to receive justice department approval and elections in the parish will be able to start as scheduled on Oct. 22. The plan was approved Aug. 29, the deadline for elections to begin on time.

Although the St. James plan has garnered clearance from the Justice Department, it does not prevent residents from filing suit to challenge the plan. A group of seven residents filed suit in U.S. District Court in New Orleans last week, prior to the plan gaining clearance.

According to online court documents, the suit seeks to have the plan declared unconstitutional and asks the court to supervise creation of a new plan. The suit alleges the current redistricting plan dilutes black voting strength in the majority black parish. The same group had filed an earlier lawsuit in May against an earlier plan, but that litigation stalled in court because of a missed deadline. That suit alleged “obvious gerrymandering of districts for partisan or personal political purposes.”

The earlier plan was approved by the council on May 4 by a vote of 4-3 with all three black council members voting against the plan. St. James Parish President Dale Hymel vetoed that plan two days later saying he believed the plan would not garner Justice Department support. On May 9, the council voted to override the veto and approve that plan with a 6-1 vote. A month later the council voted to rescind the previous plan in favor of an alternative map that altered the boundaries for four of the parish’s seven districts. This new version, which keeps a strong black majority in Districts 4, 5 and 6 and creates a fourth, District 2, with a roughly 50-50 split between white and black residents, is the target of the new litigation.

The plaintiffs plan to meet soon with their attorney to discuss the Justice Department’s approval and possible litigation options. To halt council elections on Oct. 22, the plaintiffs would have to ask for an injunction against the parish.