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Overcoming White Supremacy in Louisiana

When Louisiana lawmakers convened in 1898 to update the state constitution, one of the major complaints among them was that the recently ratified 15th Amendment prevented them from disenfranchising black people as they desired. The president of that convention, E.B. Kruttschnitt, proclaimed that a white majority would eventually overcome the 15th amendment’s voting rights mandate. Said Kruttschnitt:

“I say to you, that we can appeal to the conscience of the nation, both judicial and legislative and I don’t believe that they will take the responsibility of striking down the system which we have reared in order to protect the purity of the ballot box and to perpetuate the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race in Louisiana.”

Vestiges of that Louisiana-styled white supremacy can be found today in Terrebonne Parish (county), where African Americans have been unable to serve as judges in their district’s court system since it was founded in 1822. Because of the at-large election system there, it’s mathematically impossible for black voters to elect a judge of their choice. White voters constitute 80 percent of the electorate and they tend to vote as a bloc during open primaries. This is why the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) filed a lawsuit in federal district court to change the system into one where each judge is elected by a different slice of the electorate, at least one of which would be made up of black voters.

“For nearly two centuries, Terrebonne Parish has used at-large voting to maintain a racially segregated 32nd Judicial District Court,” said Ryan Haygood, Director of LDF’s Political Participation Group. “That system for electing judges has guaranteed that Black voters, in spite of having tried in election after election, cannot elect their judges of choice to this court. This lawsuit seeks to bring greater inclusion and democratic legitimacy to Terrebonne Parish’s political process through district-based voting.”

The last African American to run for judge in the 32nd District gained just 1 percent of the white vote, while grabbing 72 percent of black votes. The historical racial polarization among voters there, along with the majority-will-always-win at-large system, amounts to voter dilution. This is a classic violation of the Voting Rights Act’s provisions that ensure racial minorities have equal opportunities to elect people of their own interests.

Instead, they’re stuck with judges like Timothy Ellender, a white man who once walked into a restaurant wearing an orange inmate jumpsuit and Afro wig for a Halloween party. When he didn’t get the laughs he wanted, he took makeup offered by the restaurant’s owner and upgraded his costume with blackface. Ellender would later say that while his behavior was "inflammatory" it wasn’t offensive towards African Americans because that wasn’t his intention. As a white judge from a long line of politicians, he had the privilege and power to determine that.

Meanwhile, black people complained about the incident to Terrebonne’s NAACP chapter. The civil rights activists there say the incident is an example of racial bias in the court system. They’ve also been urging the state legislature to exercise their authority over this problem by changing the judicial election system from at-large to a split district system. Under the alternative process, black voters—who are less than 20 percent of the total voting population—will have a better opportunity to elect at least one black judge. The state supreme court has recommended that the legislature create a sixth judicial election district for black voters. But oddly, state lawmakers won't approve it.

These majority-only regimes work against African Americans in multiple ways throughout Louisiana, in both the court and polls settings. As the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers stated in a 2008 legal brief: “Where a group forming a majority in the community can elect both the District Attorney and the judge in a parish and then form an effective quorum on the jury, the jury no longer operates effectively as a check on oppression by the government.”

That’s  in reference to Louisiana’s “majority verdict” jury laws, which require in most cases that only ten of 12 jurors need to be in agreement for a final verdict as opposed to the unanimous dozen it takes in every other state except for one (Oregon). In Terrebonne courts, If the jury pool demographics are proportional to the population, that means a black defendant might get two black jurors at best, which means their votes would barely count.

These laws were created during the 1898 constitutional convention, where in closing Attorney General Thomas J. Semmes stated that the lawmakers’  "mission" was "to establish the supremacy of the white race in this state,” which echoed the sentiments of the convention’s president Kruttschnitt stated above.

Today Terrebonne is the place that tried to make a crime out of sagging pants, which would have essentially criminalized black men. It’s also the place that tried to criminalize homelessness, where 38.7 percent of African Americans live below poverty compared to 11.6 percent of whites.

This is where the ACLU had to threaten to sue the school board to allow a girl to wear her tuxedo to her prom at a school named for Allen J. Ellender, a U.S. senator for Louisiana from 1937 to 1972 who staunchly opposed passage of the Voting Rights Act. His future kinfolk Timothy Ellender would become the judge who donned blackface and an Afro wig one Halloween night in Terrebonne for laughs.

For that stunt, by the way, a state investigative commission said that Judge Timothy Ellender “perpetuated the notion of African Americans as both inferior and as criminals,” and questioned his ability to serve the public without racial bias. His punishment was a one year suspension from the court without pay. Terrebonne Parish voters re-elected him shortly after that suspension was served. Today, he continues to preside as a judge in the state that is recognized as the incarceration capital of the world.