Deal that led to Black representation on Louisiana's highest court upheld by federal appeals panel

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A 1992 federal court agreement that led to a Black justice being elected to Louisiana’s once all-white Supreme Court will remain in effect under a ruling Wednesday from a divided federal appeals court panel.

The 2-1 ruling from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds a lower court ruling. It's a defeat for state Attorney General Jeff Landry, now Louisiana's governor-elect.

Civil rights groups led by the Legal Defense Fund heralded the ruling. "Today, the court recognized the failure of Louisiana’s Attorney General to show that the important safeguard for ensuring Black Louisiana voters have a say in who presides over their Supreme Court is no longer necessary,” Leah Aden, LDF Senior Counsel, said in a news release.

Angelique Freel, an assistant attorney general, said in an emailed statement that the decision would be appealed to the full 5th Circuit, which has 16 full-time judges.

Landry and state Solicitor General Elizabeth Murrill, a fellow Republican who is in a runoff election campaign to succeed him as attorney general, had argued in a March hearing that the 1992 agreement is no longer needed and should be dissolved. She noted the election of a series of Black justices from the New Orleans-area district over the past three decades.

“While the election of a member of the minority group is one factor to consider, this alone does not demonstrate that the vestiges of past discrimination have been eliminated to the extent practicable,” Judge Jacques Wiener wrote for the majority, rejecting the attorney general's arguments.

Attorneys for the original plaintiffs in the voting rights case and the U.S. Justice Department had argued that the state presented no evidence to show it would not revert to old patterns that denied Black voters representation on the state’s highest court.

U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan last year refused to dissolve the agreement, referred to as a consent judgment or consent decree. Wiener, nominated to the court by President George H.W. Bush, was joined by Judge Carl Stewart, nominated by President Bill Clinton, in upholding Morgan's decision. Judge Kurt Engelhardt, nominated by President Donald Trump, dissented.

The majority held that court precedents required that the state prove that vestiges of past discrimination have been eliminated and that the past discrimination will not be repeated. The state failed on both counts, Wiener wrote.

Engelhardt wrote in dissent that the state had met its obligations under the consent judgment.

“By failing to explain the limits of the Consent Judgment’s requirements with any specificity, or when termination will be warranted, the majority seems to say, ‘We’ll know it when we feel it,’" Engelhardt wrote. ”This not only shows an unwarranted and extraordinary mistrust of the State and its duly elected officials, but further perpetuates a scenario in which these parties will never agree—and, under the majority’s holding, this disagreement will prevent the Consent Judgment from ever being satisfied."

Kevin Mcgill, The Associated Press