BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana lawmakers are trying to wade into a political thicket they haven’t braved in nearly 25 years: the redrawing of maps setting the state’s Supreme Court districts.
The hurdle for a successful redesign is high. Prior discussions across the last two decades about remapping the Louisiana Supreme Court collapsed in disagreement. But House and Senate members looking at wide population disparities across the high court’s districts say it’s time to try again in the special redistricting session planned for February.
“I’ve seen a lot of interest in the Supreme Court. I think the fact that the numbers are so different in these districts creates a lot of interest,” said Rep. John Stefanski, the Crowley Republican who chairs the House’s redistricting committee.
Every 10 years with the release of new U.S. Census data, the Legislature reworks the boundary lines for U.S. House, state Senate, state House, Public Service Commission and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education seats to account for population shifts around the state.
Lawmakers have the authority to draw court districts, but aren’t required to do so. Without that mandate, legislators have regularly avoided the task rather than maneuver through the thorny politics of the judiciary and its elected judges.
The seven Louisiana Supreme Court districts — represented by justices elected to 10-year terms — were last updated in 1997 based on census data from 1990, when the state had 400,000 fewer residents than it does today.
The high court districts vary widely in population size.
About 477,000 people live in the Supreme Court’s New Orleans-based district that elected Justice Piper Griffin, compared to nearly 839,000 people in its Baton Rouge regional district that elected Justice Jeff Hughes, according to data provided to lawmakers by their staff.
If Louisiana’s population was spread evenly across the court districts, each justice would be elected from a district containing about 665,000 people.
“I think the Supreme Court has the most obvious out-of-balance populations in their districts, and so there’s been a push to rebalance the numbers,” said Senate President Page Cortez, a Lafayette Republican.
Still, interest in the high court mapmaking effort doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a consensus on how those districts should be drawn. Reaching that consensus will be difficult because of the lack of requirement to redesign the districts and the two-thirds vote needed in the House and Senate for any new map involving Louisiana’s high court.
“That’s the real elephant in the room,” Stefanski said of getting the super-majority vote. “It’s certainly a daunting prospect to pass something.”
Getting two-thirds of lawmakers to agree on anything contentious has become harder as the Legislature has grown more partisan.
While Republicans hold two-thirds of the Senate seats, they need two votes from either independents or Democrats to reach that hurdle in the House if GOP lawmakers vote as bloc. And Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards would have to sign off on new districts drawn by the majority-Republican Legislature, or lawmakers would need a two-thirds vote to override his veto.
Black lawmakers are interested in having two majority-minority Supreme Court districts, up from the one that exists today, noting that one-third of Louisiana’s population is Black. A pending lawsuit in federal court argues the current Supreme Court maps are discriminatory against Black voters.
Some lawmakers earlier this year tried unsuccessfully to expand the number of districts on the court, seeking to add two new seats that would help ensure at least one new majority-minority district. That could further complicate efforts to redraw the existing district maps, if a portion of lawmakers still prefer the increased district approach.
Meanwhile, lawyers in the Legislature whose profession is regulated by the Supreme Court and who may one day have to present a case before the justices will be treading carefully in the discussion.
A decade ago in the last redistricting special session, lawmakers toyed with redrawing the Supreme Court’s boundary lines. But House and Senate leaders disagreed in 2011 about whether to revamp the maps, and court leaders asked to be left alone, so the districts were left untouched.
In the 2001 redistricting session, the Supreme Court seats weren’t even included on the agenda despite some interest in reworking them.
The court hasn’t weighed in on the latest effort — at least not publicly.
“The Justices are aware of the Legislature’s interest in redistricting the Louisiana Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has not taken a position,” court spokesperson Trina Vincent said in a statement.