Louisiana

Can a Black judge be elected in a majority-White district? | Courts

It’s been 30 years since the Louisiana legislature added 25 new counties to the voter map for judicial elections statewide. The so-called subdistricts, which emerged from a settlement in a civil rights battle in 1986, were laid out in predominantly black neighborhoods. The goal was to give black candidates vying for magistrates a reasonable chance to win.

When the lines were redrawn in WW1St Circuit Court of Appeal, part of downtown Baton Rouge nestled near the Mississippi River, became the Black Subdistrict. Justice John Michael Guidry has held this seat since 1997. The other three justices who make up the portion of the East Baton Rouge Court of Appeals are elected from a subdistrict composed primarily of whites.

In modern Louisiana history, no black candidate has ever been elected from a white district.

Chief Justice of the 19th Circuit Court Donald Johnson has encroached on this white subdistrict in his bid to demand a judiciary on the Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge J. Michael McDonald, who currently holds the seat, is in his 70s and is ineligible for re-election after his term expires on December 31.

Johnson, who is black, has served an inner-city Baton Rouge district since his election to the 19th Precinctth JDC in 1999. He is the longest-serving judge currently on that bench.

But if he competes around 19th JDC Family Court Judge Hunter Greene will fight in an appeals court runoff Dec. 10, leaving Johnson, a Democrat, in uncharted territory.

“I can’t go around thinking the only way I can win is in a black-majority district,” Johnson said in an interview with The Advocate during his campaign. “I can’t accept that anymore. … That can’t be my way of thinking, and I can’t allow others to accept that.”

The white subdistrict includes about three-fourths of the community of East Baton Rouge, including unincorporated Baton Rouge and the outlying towns of Zachary, Central, and Baker.

But Baton Rouge political analyst John Couvillon, who has been tracking numbers in state and national elections since 2010, says changing demographics in the community are making way for a minority candidate to emerge even in areas once considered staunch Republican strongholds known to emerge victorious.

“While Louisiana was very conservative on election night, the community of East Baton Rouge was not,” Couvillon said. “East Baton Rouge Parish has moved to the left. Part of that is demographics, and part of that is that the Conservative electorate is increasingly moving into Ascension, Livingston and other communities, leaving a more Democratic core there.”

Couvillon, owner of JMC Analytics and Polling, pointed to enclaves like the High Catholic District near Capital Heights, where Democratic candidates enjoy strong support from white liberals and moderates. While about 90% of voters in that county are white, Johnson managed to win 52% of the vote there on Tuesday.

“Because the black voting population has dispersed to other areas of the community over time, you’re talking about an appellate court district that’s between 35 percent and 40 percent black,” Couvillon said. “Which, in plain language, means that any Democrat running for that seat has an automatic base of support that puts him or her in the runoff.”

Last week’s primary was a three-man race, which also included Beau Higginbotham, another 19th JDC judge. When the dust cleared, according to complete but unofficial results from the Louisiana Secretary of State, Johnson was the leading voter with 43% of the vote. However, since no one received 50% of the votes, this must be decided in a runoff.

Greene claimed a third of the votes to finish second and qualify for the December 10 election. Higginbotham won about a quarter of the votes to round out the field.

The Greene-Johnson clash is an affair that’s about anything that could boil down to the smallest of margins, as demonstrated in an April runoff when Brad Myers defeated ex-LSU baseball player Jordan Faircloth by two votes to secure his seat 19. JDC Bank.

“The great thing about elections like this is that you can’t have voter apathy because in this type of race every vote really counts,” said Andree Miller, director of the political action committee of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, a group of business lobbyists based in Baton Rouge.

Greene and Higginbotham both ran as Republicans. Political insiders say the upcoming election will show whether Johnson is a genuine front runner or whether Greene and Higginbotham are wiping out each other among Conservative voters during the primary. That could bode well for Greene, who would get a lion’s share of Higginbotham’s nod in the runoff.

Another factor will be turnout, which eclipsed 49% in Tuesday’s race. But it was a midterm election with national implications that included several US congressional elections as well as a handful of ballot initiatives that drew voters to the polls. The Dec. 10 runoff will be held on a Saturday in the middle of the holiday season, with no “top ballot” races or constitutional changes to attract voters. Analysts estimate turnout could drop to 20% or even lower.

“Due to the expected low turnout in this runoff, it will be incumbent upon both candidates to convey their legal ideology to voters and weaken their electoral base,” Miller said. “In my opinion, whoever can do that is the winner.”

Changing demographics was one of the driving factors that compelled Johnson to launch his campaign. He noted that black families were concentrated near the Mississippi River when Louisiana established the subdistricts decades ago, but African Americans have now spread across the community. Twice rejected when he asked the legislature to consider readjusting voting lines based on the latest census data, Johnson said his mission now is to show a minority candidate wins the seat outright in an election.

“I don’t want to leave this post believing that those who come behind me don’t have an equal opportunity to achieve their dreams or their potential,” he said. “I shouldn’t accept that. If I accept that, it means I accept the fact that I don’t think I can change it.”

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