The GOP-led Louisiana Legislature is using public funds to pay a law firm tied to the Republican Party to advise it on the creation of new political districts.
BakerHotelier has offices across the country and extensive experience working on electoral redistricting and litigation for states and candidates. One of his attorneys, Mark Braden, served as general counsel for the Republican National Committee for 10 years. He is also a board member of the Republican National Lawyers Association, which appointed him Republican Lawyer of the Year in 2014.
Louisiana lawmakers are currently in the midst of a special session on political redistricting where they are redrawing the lines for seats in the Louisiana United States House, State Senate, US House of Representatives State, the Civil Service Commission and the Board of Primary and Secondary Education. They may also rework state Supreme Court districts.
Civil rights organizations have threatened to sue if lawmakers approve maps for the U.S. House and Legislature that don’t add majority-minority seats. Louisiana’s population is 33% black, but majority black districts make up less than one-third of Louisiana’s political seats at the federal and state levels.
So far, the Republican leadership of the Legislative Assembly has been unwilling to add majority-minority seats to political maps. All of the GOP leadership’s proposals keep majority-minority districts at their current levels, making lawsuits from the NAACP and ACLU of Louisiana likely.
Earlier in the week, Senate Speaker Page Cortez R-Lafayette said the Louisiana Senate and House had coordinated to hire the same law firm to “provide advice” on the redistricting process. . The law firm, in turn, had hired a political consultant to conduct racially-biased voting analysis, which is supposed to determine the extent to which voters of different races prefer different candidates in Louisiana.
Racially polarized voting often becomes a factor in federal suffrage lawsuits. Courts use it to help determine how many majority-minority districts are reasonable.
Cortez said the legislative branch was not using public funds to pay another outside contractor besides the law firm to work on the redistricting. He said he did not hire redistricting consultants through his campaign account or a political action committee.
The Senate Speaker said he was unaware of any “specific party ties” BakerHostetler had before the company was chosen for the redistricting work.
“They were chosen solely because of their experience and expertise in redistricting,” Cortez said in a text Saturday.
Democratic leaders said the law firm was hired without any input from them. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Sam Jenkins of Shreveport said he hadn’t had a chance to talk to BakerHostetler’s lawyers about redistricting options. He didn’t even know the company had been hired until a reporter contacted him on Saturday.
“We were never consulted about engaging a law firm for the House to act in any capacity on redistricting,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins said the Democratic caucus is working with its own redistricting consultant provided by the Louisiana Democratic Party, although the caucus is not paying for the services. The person has been “loaned” by the state party as Democratic lawmakers draw with their own political maps.
It is not clear that Braden, in particular, is advising the leadership of the Legislative Assembly on redistricting. Cortez told a reporter in a Friday night text message that BakerHostetler had received the legal contracts, but did not specify which of the firm’s lawyers had been assigned to do the work.
Braden specializes in state election law and handles much of the high-profile redistricting and election litigation at BakerHostetler. He has worked as lead counsel in election and voting rights litigation in Virginia, New York, Wyoming, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Georgia, Nevada, Maryland and Connecticut.
Prior to joining the law firm, he was counsel for the Ohio Election Commission and successfully defended this political maps drawn by state Republicans against a 2012 court challenge. At the time, a lawsuit filed by voters in Ohio accused Republicans of drawing policy lines that unfairly benefited the GOP in the congressional election.
The Michigan Redistricting Commission – a nonpartisan body responsible for drawing the state’s political maps – was criticized last year for hiring BakerHostetler work on their own proposals. Aadvocates of a nonpartisan redistricting were particularly concerned that the law firm defended maps drawn by Republicans in other states that were ultimately rejected on gerrymandering grounds, according to the Detroit Free Press.
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BakerHotelier defended himself in Michigan saying he had worked “both sides of the issue” representing clients who accused both government agencies of gerrymandering and those who needed to be defended against accusations of gerrymandering.
Louisiana’s 2011 redistricting session became mired in controversy on a similar law firm contract.
Former House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Alger, left House Democrats in the dark before hiring the law firm Holtzman Vogel to work on the redistricting that year. The company helped political maps of Louisiana obtain pre-clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice and was supposed to defend Louisiana if redistricting lawsuits arose.
Holtzman Vogel is also affiliated with the Republicans. The firm had already advised the Louisiana House Republican delegation on redistricting before Tucker hired the attorneys, with taxpayer money, to represent the entire House.
At the time, House Democrats said the law firm’s work for the House Republican delegation created a conflict of interest and that the law firm should not represent the entire House . Tucker defended the decision, saying Holtzman Vogel was not paid for advice he offered to the GOP delegation.
Governor John Bel Edwards, who led the House Democratic Caucus in 2011, was among those who criticized the Holtzman Vogel contract.
“You can’t represent the whole body when you’ve spent the session advising part of the House,” said Edwards in 2011, referring to Republicans.
The Times-Picayune reported the contract with Holtzman Vogel ended up costing the House $81,000. Tucker paid for it by keeping certain House clerk positions vacant. The Louisiana Senate did not hire an outside attorney in 2011 and relied on attorneys and demographers to create its maps.