Before Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was in the national spotlight for the recent killings of Alton Sterling and three police officers, it was the city’s court system that was at the center of a prolonged battle over race.

In 2012, Baton Rouge residents Kenneth Hall and Byron Sharper filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the state of Louisiana, saying the system for electing city court judges was discriminatory. They argued that Baton Rouge’s districting system – enacted in the 1990s when the city was majority white, resulting in three white districts and two black ones – violated the federal Voting Rights Act and diluted African American voting strength in the city. The five-member elected city court handles misdemeanor, small claims and traffic cases.

In every election since 1993, three of the five members of the city court had been white,  despite the city’s growing African American population, according to the lawsuit. Blacks make up about 55 percent of the city’s population, while whites constitute 39 percent, according to the 2010 census.

The situation in Baton Rouge is not unique. According to “The Gavel Gap,” a new study by the American Constitution Society, state court judges around the country are disproportionately white and male, creating a striking difference between the composition of the courts and the communities they serve. State court judges hear more than 90 percent of all judicial matters in the country, dealing with everything from landlord disputes to custody battles and traffic violations.

In the study, researchers compiled biographical information for over 10,000 sitting judges and compared the proportion of women and people of color in each state’s courts to the state’s population. They found a significant disparity, which they labeled “the gavel gap.”

Credit: gavelgap.org “The Gavel Gap,” American Constitution Society Credit: “The Gavel Gap,” American Constitution Society

People of color make up 20 percent of state judges but are 38 percent of the population. In Vermont, North Dakota, Maine and New Hampshire, every judge on the state bench was white, according to the study, which looked at demographic data in December 2014.

North Dakota is one of the least representative states, earning an F rating for how poorly its state court judges reflect its demographics. For example, people of color make up 16 percent of the state’s population, but not a single minority judge sits on the state bench. White men, meanwhile, represent 41 percent of North Dakota’s population but account for 78 percent of state court judges. The rest are white women.

Credit: gavelgap.org Credit: gavelgap.org

The statistics aren’t much better for women. Women make up less than a third of state judges, yet they represent more than half of the population. In West Virginia, where women constitute 51 percent of the population, 11 percent of the 71 state court judges are women.

Credit: “The Gavel Gap,” American Constitution Society Credit: gavelgap.org

Even though half of America’s law students are women, that equality hasn’t translated to judgeships. No state has as many female judges as it does male.

“The vast majority of Americans’ interactions with the judicial system, ranging from traffic violations to criminal proceedings, happen in state courts,” said law professor Professor Tracey E. George of Vanderbilt University, one of the authors of the report. “When people do not see themselves represented in their community leadership, when the vast majority of judges cannot relate to the lived experience of those they serve—this is a problem. It creates a mistrust of judges, and propagates the mystery surrounding the court system.”

For years, people in Baton Rouge implored the state Legislature to redraw the district lines to respond to the evolving demographics of the city. Lawmakers took up the issue several times, but reform attempts went nowhere. In the 2013 and 2014 legislative sessions, three House bills were introduced to amend Baton Rouge’s city court districting plan. None of them passed.

In June of last year, a federal judge ruled against the two Baton Rouge residents who filed the civil rights lawsuit. Judge Brian A. Jackson said that while the intent of Baton Rouge’s districting system was not discriminatory, it did result in “de facto discrimination” against African Americans.

“It is clear to the Court that, regrettably, the state legislature has thus far failed to adapt the City Court election system to adequately protect the voting rights of all Baton Rouge residents,” Jackson wrote in his opinion.

Nevertheless, Jackson said it was not up to the courts to fix the problem.

“In this particular case, at this particular time, the prerogative lies with the legislature, not with the Court, to redistrict the City Court of Baton Rouge in accordance with the principles of constituent representation that should be strived toward in any elected body,” he wrote.

A few weeks after the judge’s ruling and after years of failed efforts, the Louisiana Legislature finally came up with a solution to restructure the way Baton Rouge’s city court judges are elected.

Democratic state Rep. Alfred Williams had pushed for a redistricting plan that would create a majority black court in which three of the five judges would be elected from black districts. But a Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Dan Claitor, pushed for two majority white and two majority black districts and a fifth at-large, citywide district.

Williams eventually backed down from his proposal and urged his colleagues to vote for the Senate version of the bill.

“It’s not what I want but after discussions with a number of judges and others in the community that (the 2-2-1 Claitor plan) is what they recommended that we do,” Williams said in an interview with The Advocate.

In July 2015, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal signed into law a new map for Baton Rouge’s city court elections. The city’s judges now are elected from two majority black districts, two majority white districts and one at-large, citywide seat.

After the most recent election in October, Tarvald Smith, who is African American, won the newly created at-large seat, giving Baton Rouge a majority black court for the first time in more than two decades.

This story was edited by Fernando Diaz and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Amy Julia Harris can be reached at aharris@cironline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @amyjharris.

Amy Julia Harris

Amy Julia Harris is a reporter for Reveal, covering vulnerable communities. She and Reveal reporter Shoshana Walter exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting and won a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. It also led to four government investigations, including two criminal probes and four federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery and fraud.

Harris was a Livingston Award for Young Journalists finalist for her investigation into the lack of government oversight of religious-based day cares, which led to tragedies for children in Alabama and elsewhere. In a previous project for Reveal, she uncovered widespread squalor in a public housing complex in the San Francisco Bay Area and traced it back to mismanagement and fraud in the troubled public housing agency.

Before joining Reveal, Harris was an education reporter at The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. She has also written for The Seattle Times, Half Moon Bay Review, and Campaigns and Elections Politics Magazine.