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An appeal in Louisiana's redistricting case puts a new congressional map at risk

A person walks in front of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans in 2015.
Jonathan Bachman
A person walks in front of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans in 2015.

Updated December 1, 2023 at 8:59 PM ET

Republican state officials are asking the full 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to review a panel ruling in the legal fight over Louisiana's congressional map.

The officials cite the recent ruling by a separate federal appeals court that found private individuals — such as the Black voters in Louisiana who are arguing their state's map violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act — do not have the right to sue under that key section of the landmark law. They also question whether a lower court calling for a second majority-Black district to be drawn through race-based redistricting is constitutional.

It's the latest legal development in a long-running redistricting fight that could help determine which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives after next year's elections.

The state's request to the full 5th Circuit threatens to delay the complicated process for getting in place a redistricting plan that is in line with the Voting Rights Act in time for the 2024 elections.

A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit had given the Louisiana legislature until Jan. 15, 2024, to draw a new congressional map after concluding a lower court correctly ruled that the previous map likely violated the Voting Rights Act by diluting the power of the state's Black voters.

This week, the lower court judge extended that deadline to Jan. 30, 2024. The move came days after the state said in a court filing that the legislature likely could not enact a new map through a special session called by Louisiana Gov.-elect Jeff Landry by mid-January.

The panel's order, released on Nov. 10, tossed out a 2022 ruling by the lower court, which the panel noted was "issued with the urgency of establishing a map for the 2022 elections" and is "no longer necessary."

Still, the panel found that the lower court "did not clearly err in its necessary fact-findings nor commit legal error" in finding the map approved by the state's Republican-controlled legislature to be a likely violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

Out of that map's six congressional districts, there is only one where Black Louisianans — who make up close to a third of the state's population — have a realistic opportunity to elect their preferred candidate. That candidate would likely be a Democrat because of how racially polarized voting is in the southern state.

The appeals court panel's ruling notes that if the state legislature does not pass a new map in January, the lower court should move ahead to a trial in order to finalize a map in time for the 2024 elections.

Any major delays could risk not having a redistricting plan in place by late May, when the state has said it needs a final map to prepare for elections.

After the ruling's release, Landry said he plans to call a special session as governor. "Redistricting is a state legislative function. Based on today's ruling, I will call for a special session so our Legislature may resolve this issue," Landry said in an emailed statement on Nov. 10.

But Landry is not set to be inaugurated until Jan. 8. And if he calls a special session on his inauguration day, Louisiana's state constitution does not allow the session to start until seven days later, which would be the original Jan. 15 deadline.

The state's outgoing Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards, could call a session before leaving office. On the day the 5th Circuit panel released its ruling, Edwards said in a statement that Louisiana "can and should have a congressional map that represents our voting population, which is one-third Black."

"This is about simple math, basic fairness, and the rule of law," Edwards added. "With the 5th Circuit's action today, I remain confident that we will have a fair map with two majority Black districts before the congressional elections next year."

But on Thursday, Eric Holl, a spokesperson for the governor, confirmed in an email that Edwards is not planning to call a special session to draw new maps because "the new governor and legislature will now have time to meet the deadline."

The U.S. Supreme Court was recently asked to review a separate 5th Circuit panel's ruling that canceled a hearing about redrawing the map. The court denied an emergency request to revive that hearing and speed up the redrawing process.

This case is one of several in the South where Republican state officials are trying to argue that the Voting Rights Act's Section 2 is no longer constitutional. Section 2 is a key remaining part of the landmark law after Supreme Court rulings weakened many of its provisions over the past decade. The effort against Section 2 is trying to push federal courts to reinterpret long-standing legal protections against racial discrimination in redistricting.

In a similar congressional redistricting case out of Alabama, however, the Supreme Court ruled in June to uphold its past rulings on Section 2 and allowed a lower court to put in place a map with two opportunity districts for Black voters.

WNNO and WRKF reporter Molly Ryan contributed to this report.

Edited by Benjamin Swasey

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.