NEW ORLEANS —The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals today ruled in favor of civil rights activist Ronald Chisom, the Honorable Marie Bookman, the Urban League, the United States, and Chief Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson in Chisom v. State of Louisiana, upholding Black voters’ ability to elect a justice of their choice to the state’s highest court. The ACLU of Louisiana served as lead counsel for Chief Justice Johnson.
The lawsuit arises from decades-old litigation instituted by Black voters in New Orleans who were being denied the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice to the Louisiana Supreme Court. For over a century, the legislature has strategically diluted the power of Black voters by packing them into voting districts with parishes that have majority-white populations.
Historically, only 3 of Louisiana’s 117 Supreme Court Justices have been African American- which constitutes less than 2.5%. Each of these Justices was elected by Black voting majorities in the district created and protected by the Consent Judgment.
“Systemic racism continues to run rampant in Louisiana. Black people continue to experience centuries-old discrimination that impedes their ability to vote and participate in the political process," said Alanah Odoms, ACLU of Louisiana executive director. "We are glad the Fifth Circuit has ruled to uplift the voices of one-third of Louisiana’s population.”
After protracted litigation reached the United States Supreme Court, in 1992, the parties agreed to resolve the case by Consent Judgment, resulting in a mandate that a New Orleans-based voting district be created during the subsequent redistricting cycle. Nearly thirty years later, on December 2, 2021, in an about-face, the State asked the court monitoring the Consent Judgment to dissolve it, claiming no need to preserve a seat for Black voters to elect a Supreme Court Justice of their choice. The lower court disagreed, the State appealed, and, today, the Fifth Circuit agreed with the lower court’s ruling.
In its 2-1 decision, the Fifth Circuit Court acknowledged this history, stating that “the record cannot support a determination that the vestiges of past discrimination have been eliminated to the extent practicable.”
“Since 1986, Louisiana voters have insisted upon their right to elect a candidate of choice to the Louisiana Supreme Court,” said Chief Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson, plaintiff and former Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court. “This is the essence of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The Chisom case accomplished this very important goal. The Fifth Circuit’s ruling validating Chisom is invaluable.”
“It is an honor and a privilege to represent the first Black female Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court in this precedent-setting case,” said Nora Ahmed, ACLU of Louisiana legal director. “This decision marks a huge victory for voting rights in Louisiana. Black voters deserve a voting system that is compliant with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, and we will keep up the fight until that system is implemented.”
Read the full decision here.