(The Center Square) — Legislation to redistrict Louisiana Supreme Court seats and to shift to a closed-party primary system moved out of a House committee on the second day of an extraordinary session.
The House Committee on House and Governmental Affairs approved House Bill 8, sponsored by Speaker Pro Tempore Mike Johnson, R-Pineville, to craft the first new Supreme Court districts for the second time in 103 years.
“We have to address a severe population imbalance between the current districts,” Johnson told the committee, noting the smallest is roughly half the size of the largest.
HB 8 would utilize an open seat in Shreveport in 2024 to add a second majority Black Supreme Court seat Johnson said would help address the population imbalance and litigation demanding a second Black majority district, Johnson said.
The legislation was crafted by existing Supreme Court justices and vetted by Black members of both the Supreme Court and Courts of Appeal.
Judge John Michael Guidry with the First Circuit Court of Appeal, the most senior Black appeals judge, testified in favor of the bill as “the best opportunity to help the administration of justice to give us equal districts.
“It will give us an opportunity to elect an African American judge out of a district based in East Baton Rouge Parish without disturbing the rest of the judiciary,” he said, noting that Justice Scott Crichton cannot run for re-election.
HB 8 was reported favorably without objection.
Also considered by committee was House Bill 17, sponsored by Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carencro, to change Louisiana’s current jungle primary to a closed party primary. The legislation would allow the two major political parties to determine if unaffiliated voters could participate, and would apply to congressional races in 2025, as well as all statewide, legislative, state school board, and judicial races by 2026.
Candidate qualifying would begin in June, with the primaries for both parties on the same day in August. Independent candidates would qualify for the ballot through a petition process.
“We feel this is the way we should go in Louisiana,” Emerson said.
Democrats on the committee raised concerns about disenfranchising the roughly 660,000 Louisiana voters who are not affiliated with a party, as well as the cost, which Secretary of State officials told the committee is roughly $7.2 million in direct costs per election and $3 million in indirect costs.
“That’s a lot of people who won’t get to participate in all elections,” said Rep. Candace Newell, D-New Orleans.
Newell argued the change should be limited to congressional offices and urged the committee to put HB 17 on hold for further discussion during the regular session.
The Louisiana Republican Party testified in favor of the bill, suggesting it would generate more discussions on the governing philosophy. The Pelican Institute was also in favor, while the Public Affairs Research Council and former East Baton Rouge Republican Rep. Barry Ivey testified against it.
John Couvillon, a pollster with JMC Analytics, told the committee 65% of voters support keeping the current jungle primary, which involves all candidates in one election, with a runoff among the top two if none receive a majority. About 56% of voters opposed the closed-party primary system, he said.
“There’s a broad consensus of support for the current system,” Couvillon said.
Secretary of State officials testified for information about HB 17 and expressed some concern about having enough time to implement the change if approved.
“Rushing leads to errors and mistakes and we can’t afford to have mistakes in an election,” Secretary of State Nancy Landry said.
Committee members ultimately voted 11-4 to approve the bill. Other legislation to expand absentee voting by mail and remove party affiliation from ballots for judges, both sponsored by Democrat Rep. Mandie Landry of New Orleans, were discussed but not approved by the committee on Tuesday.