A defendant in a civil rights lawsuit has filed an appeal after a federal court issued an order prohibiting at-large judicial elections in Terrebonne Parish.

Filed last week in the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans by Jason Torchinsky, a private attorney in Virginia representing State Attorney General Jeff Landry, the appeal brings up several arguments challenging the legality of imposing a minority judicial district in Terrebonne.

The appeal comes after a federal judge issued a court order prohibiting the governor and attorney general from conducting future at-large elections in the 32nd Judicial District following a 2017 ruling that they were unconstitutional.

The ruling followed an eight-day trial in Baton Rouge after the Terrebonne Parish NAACP sued the governor and attorney general over Terrebonne’s district judge elections in 2014.

Although black residents make up about 19 percent of Terrebonne’s population, no black candidate who has faced an opponent has ever won one of its parishwide at-large positions, which includes district judges, the parish president, the district attorney and the sheriff, according to court documents.

Beginning with the elections in 2020, the defendants have been ordered to ensure all elections in the 32nd Judicial District be conducted using the court-approved remedial redistricting plan, the judge ruled.

The plan divides Terrebonne into five single-member judicial districts, with each one electing its own judge.

The minority judicial district will consist largely of Districts 1 and 2 of the Terrebonne Parish Council and School Board. The combined district, drawn so it includes more minority than white voters, will cut across a broad section of the parish, including parts of Schriever, Gray and Houma.

In their 73-page appeals brief, the defendants contended the federal court should have never allowed the lawsuit to proceed due to several constitutional errors.

"First, the plaintiffs and the district court allowed this case to proceed against the improper parties," Torchinsky wrote. "Article III standing requires that the actions of the defendant be the cause of the harm so that the actions of the defendant can therefore rectify any harm. The current defendants in this action were powerless to stop the harm, if any, and they are now powerless to provide any relief."

Torchinsky argued that neither the governor nor attorney general is responsible for holding at-large elections in state districts and that the case should be dismissed for "lack of standing."

"Further, the plaintiffs presented no evidence in their case in chief that suggests the attorney general and/or governor is in any way liable to the plaintiffs," Torchinsky said. "No witness testified as to any discriminatory actions by the attorney general or governor. No witness testified that the attorney general or governor had harmed them or attempted to harm them in any way. No document entered into evidence shows any harm caused by the attorney general or governor."

Rather, the secretary of state is in charge of administering state elections, the defendants argued.

In addition, the defendants did not violate the Voting Rights Act because the black community in Terrebonne is not sufficiently large or geographically compact enough to create a single-member district, Torchinsky said.

"This fact is evidenced in the district court’s remedial map which itself created an impermissible racial gerrymander trying to force a single-member district where one could not be reasonably made," he said. "Further, the district court’s remedy is subject to strict scrutiny as a racial gerrymander under the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause."

The defendants are requesting oral arguments in the appeal. The plaintiffs are expected to submit their response by Nov. 5.

--Staff Writer Dan Copp can be reached at 446-7639 or at dan.copp@houmatoday.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanVCopp.