At a committee meeting this week and then later this month, the DeSoto Parish Police Jury must do the right and legal thing and fix its malapportioned districts even if it causes heartburn for incumbents.
Last year, the Jury reapportioned itself but in a way the judiciary almost certainly would find unconstitutional. Population changes that left the parish almost the same according to the 2020 census but with a surge in the northern Shreveport exurbs and decline around Mansfield weren’t accounted for adequately in its enacted plan, which didn’t differ much from existing lines. It left northern districts overpopulated and other districts underpopulated in amounts that existing jurisprudence finds highly suspicious without extenuating circumstances.
Although the arguments for this deviation have changed, the latest has lit on incumbent protection – lines that don’t change each juror’s district much to provide continuity of representation – as the rationale. Under normal circumstances that would be a heavy lift, assigning so much importance to avoiding at least one pair or more of incumbents facing off in a new district for reelection as to induce malapportionment, or having districts with widely varying populations that is unconstitutional.
The legal problem is that the idea behind the current map also has the effect of injecting race into the equation. It draws five majority-minority districts out of 11 – and in doing so performs another judicially-suspicious act, that of splitting Mansfield and a distinct community of interest, into five parts – even as the black population in the parish is only 36 percent or suggesting four M/M districts. Making the scheme even more constitutionally dubious, also with 11 districts the parish’s School Board came up with a map with districts far from malapportioned and comprising four M/M districts.
Incumbent protection/continuity of representation might work with 5 M/M districts and no incumbents set to face off if the -5 to +5 percent range from mean population per district existed, which the NAACP Legal Defense Fund subsequently argued (while ignoring exactly opposite argumentation it made in a suit against Louisiana’s reapportionment of its congressional districts last year) though if Mansfield remains fragmented that still might not pass constitutional muster. The current plan violates that range, hence a threatened law suit by residents that prompted the Jury to consider a different arrangement.
Clearly, some jurors still don’t get it. When asked about simply adopting the School Board’s version, they complained it would throw two incumbents together. One in particular, Democrat Jeri Burrell, moaned that changes would impact negatively her reelection chances, and insinuated that the aggrieved citizens behind the suit were out to accomplish that.
Sticking with the present plan invites a suit that likely wins on its merits and may disrupt this year’s election administration. Trying to maintain five M/M districts while going under the 10 percent band has a better chance of success, but the gutting of Mansfield still leaves a broad boulevard by which to claim race impermissibly influenced the process – because it appears that this would put at least two incumbents together, kicking the prop out from under the incumbent protection argument – and again may trigger a suit and election disruption. The best, most constitutionally firm solution would be to adopt something like the School Board’s map, but that would mean setting aside politics that have sullied the process to date.