SADOW: One Frivolous Lawsuit Down, Another Legitimate One To Come

One suit deservedly stops, another necessary one has yet to begin, and another year in Louisiana politics is under way.

As 2014 dawned, plaintiffs alleging that Louisiana had racially gerrymandered congressional districts quietly dropped that suit. It claimed that because of a recent judicial ruling that declared the process of evaluating reapportionment plans was invalid, including a portion that gave weight to creating minority-majority districts to provide for minority representation.

But the attempt was doomed from the start because it asked for a fundamental redefinition of redistricting jurisprudence, essentially that judges discount inordinately other factors important in the process and essentially take the view that if a state did not have the same proportion of M/M districts as there was racial minorities in the population, this alone was evidence of gerrymandering to dilute minority voting strength. The shill involved, former head of state Democrats Chris Whittington, put a brave face on the withdrawal, saying despite the thin jurisprudence behind the argument that “the legal merit of the suit has never been questioned by the clients” and asserted they simply didn’t want to do it now.

This doesn’t mean the suit in another form in another place may not arise. In Louisiana, given the existing jurisprudence there was plenty of ammunition to have swatted away this version. But across the country there may be states where geography, or dispersion of peoples by race and by urban or rural residence, or partisan protection of incumbents may not be so cut and dried. In that case, this effort could have acted as a trial balloon for elsewhere and thus served its purpose for national Democrats who have seen their state-level political fortunes diminish.

Meanwhile, the first crack appeared in the brittle armor surrounding the omerta of the Legislature regarding its outdated and ethically-challenged goody-tossing Tulane University scholarship program. It allows legislators to hand out annually a scholarship to a qualifying Louisianan to the institution, with the mayor of New Orleans getting five such chances, in exchange for state and local tax breaks for Tulane, as long as these do not go to a relative of the legislator (or himself), relationships to elected officials having to be revealed on the form.

The problem is legislators’ forms have been kept hidden from public view, despite the fact that applicants waive such confidentiality. Tulane as a private institution is not subject to public records requests, and House of Representatives Clerk Butch Speer and Senate Secretary Glenn Koepp have made an unfathomable argument that despite the judicially-affirmed public record statuses of these and the waiving of confidentiality, that these still cannot be released to the public – even though New Orleans’ lawyers saw it differently and Mayor Mitch Landrieu quite willingly opened all of his records on this matter.

Speer and Koepp work for legislators and thereby appear willing to put up with the embarrassment of pretending their legal reasoning allows their bosses walk around with clothes on. But the ruse works only if all agree not to point out each is starkers, and already one, state Sen. Troy Brown, has broken ranks by releasing individually his forms at the request of news outlets the Baton Rouge/New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV in New Orleans. Other legislators are reported to have said they will follow.

While a number of them appear to award on the basis of standards other than political favoritism, anecdotal evidence suggests some awardees are related to prominent politicians within various districts across the state, so the real fear behind releasing is that these factoids gets revealed. Yet the more legislators who release their forms (and there probably are some who wish to do it but are getting pressured by colleagues not to; it will be interesting to see whether Brown suffers political repercussions as a result), the less and less sensible the dwindling number of holdouts would appear to be to the public.

It’s an avalanche where the question is it’s not if it will rumble, but when. A suit for the records probably ends up as the trigger, and the news organizations may well waiting to see if the dike crumbles on its own or whether they need to open the crevasse by filing legal paperwork. It’s likely going to have to happen, given in two months exactly one guy has seen the wisdom in getting ahead of this issue (which suggests there’s probably hidden some fairly salacious machinations in the award outcomes). But the outlets may be biding their time to save time and effort, or even maybe as a favor to let jump from the sinking ship a few more of the uncontroversial awarders.

However, if it’s going to have to happen, the sooner the better, if only that it would build more momentum to get rid of the questionable program during the upcoming legislative session.

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