A panel of three judges on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is dominated by right-wing hard-liners, has blocked a lower court from going ahead with a hearing on how Louisiana should redraw its congressional map for 2024. The hearing had been scheduled for this coming Tuesday through Thursday, and the plaintiffs subsequently filed an emergency petition with the Supreme Court on Friday asking it to put the 5th Circuit’s ruling on hold.
The appellate court ruled that the lower court moved too quickly, and its decision adds a delay in a case where Republicans may once more try to run out the clock until the Supreme Court's right-wing majority says it's too close to the next election to implement a new map.
A new map is needed in Louisiana after the lower court ruled in June 2022 that Republican mapmakers likely violated the Voting Rights Act by enacting a map where Black voters could elect their preferred candidate in just one of six districts. Louisiana's population is nearly one-third Black, and the plaintiffs have proposed a map with two majority-Black districts. You can compare this map with the GOP's gerrymander by looking at the graphic at the top of this story. (Click here for a larger image, and see here for interactive versions.)
The Supreme Court put the lower court's ruling on hold for 2022 because it supposedly was too close to that fall's elections, which is why Republicans were able to use their map last November. However, the high court's order lifting that hold earlier this year specifically noted that the 5th Circuit had time to resolve the matter ahead of the 2024 elections, and it's far from guaranteed that the GOP's stalling tactics will work for a second election.
Also, in a landmark decision this past June, the Supreme Court upheld a similar lower-court ruling that required Alabama to create a second district where Black voters could elect their chosen candidate, and just earlier this week, the high court rejected the GOP's last-ditch attempt to block a new map for 2024 that would finally empower Alabama's Black voters. Louisiana's case is moving along a somewhat different procedural track than Alabama's is, but there's still significant time ahead of Louisiana's next congressional elections. The candidate filing deadline is July 19, 2024.
Further complicating matters, a panel of three different judges on the 5th Circuit will hear oral arguments on Oct. 6 regarding the GOP’s appeal to overturn the lower court's 2022 ruling requiring a new map. (Thursday's decision blocked only next week's hearing.) Last year's ruling had blocked Louisiana's map only on a preliminary basis. That’s because the court found that the plaintiffs were highly likely to prevail at a trial but would suffer irreparable harm from further delay since a victory after the fact wouldn't undo the previous election's results.
Following Thursday's 5th Circuit decision, the plaintiffs have asked the lower court to clarify the status of the case as soon as possible. Election law expert Michael Li highlighted that the plaintiffs are still trying to go ahead with a hearing on what new map to adopt, which would avoid a trial for now. However, in case the Supreme Court does not block the 5th Circuit’s ruling, Li also noted that the plaintiffs could simply proceed with a trial at the lower court, which would likely reach the same result as it did last year.
However, Li argued that, while there should be ample time left ahead of next year's elections to hold a trial, Republicans could still appeal a subsequent ruling against their map. And if appellate judges like those on the 5th Circuit panel continue to slow-walk the GOP's appeals into the next year, there's a risk that prolonged litigation could give the Supreme Court an opportunity to let Republicans get away with their illegal map for two of the decade's five elections, even if Republicans are likely to lose on the merits eventually.
This story has been updated to reflect that the plaintiffs filed an emergency petition with the Supreme Court to put the appellate court’s ruling on hold.