LAKE CHARLES – A three-judge panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeal heard arguments about the Lafayette Home Rule Charter lawsuit today.
Lawyers from all sides, including several parties who intervened, for about an hour Wednesday morning. The suit is seeking to have voters revisit the issue of deconsolidating the city-parish council into two separate councils; the amendment passed, but with clerical errors in the precincts listed in that amendment. The suit was dismissed last month by a state district judge, who found that the city-parish council could correct those errors – as it has done in the past.
The court today heard appeals of that ruling from plaintiff Keith Kishbaugh, and from Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, who was present in the courtroom for the hearing. Lane Roy, Kishbaugh’s attorney, is asking to have the revised charter sent back to voters after several precinct maps left some residents unrepresented.
Justices John Saunders, Sylvia Cooks and Kent Savoie heard the case. They questioned the attorneys about their arguments, noting that voters allegedly disenfranchised by the clerical errors in the charter amendment at issue were only barred from voting in the local and city elections, and not the upcoming gubernatorial election in the fall.
Lafayette attorney Travis Broussard, who represents several affected citizens who intervened in the case, argued that if the court decided to strike down the previous ruling, it would allow current LCG council members who are term-limited to remain in office for another year, which might actually further violate the law.
“It’s your responsibility to lend credence to what the legislature passed,” Broussard told the judges in reference to an ordinance that the Lafayette City-Parish Council passed in order to correct the errors in the district maps. “You will have to step on other provisions of law if you don’t uphold the council ordinance. This is the tail wagging the dog.”
Broussard reminded the judges that they could sever the textual descriptions of the district maps that were on the ballot, which contained the inaccurate precinct information.
But the court seemed skeptical of this argument, given that it would mean that voters would have to do their due diligence and look over the district maps held at the Registrar of Voters Office in Lafayette before voting on what was on the ballot.
“They voted on what was on the ballot,” said Judge John D. Saunders. “You can’t say that if the people don’t read the back up documents then they don’t count. The ballot has to tell the people what they’re voting for.”
Saunders stated that this lawsuit and its appeal falls on what went on the ballot that citizens voted on and not on what the council did to correct it.
“This crisis was created by the council,” Roy argued. “This could have been placed on the ballot, but it wasn’t.”
Roy stated that the Lafayette charter provides that an amendment may only take effect until after an election is held and that the council cannot reapportion their districts “willy nilly.”
“The council has the authority to determine what the districts are going to be,” said Judge D. Kent Savoie. “If they broke it, then they can fix it. They proposed a fix to a clerical error.”
The judges questioned the reasoning behind Kishbaugh’s interest in seeing the council ordinance struck down.
“Mr. Kishbaugh’s reason is political,” said Judge Sylvia R. Cooks. “In our brief, Kishbaugh stated he did not like the outcome of the election because of low voter turnout, so he wants it reversed and placed on another election.”
“There is an opportunity now in advance of the election to fix this problem,” said Roy. “The legislative body can’t decide what the constitution is or is not.”
Assistant Louisiana Attorney General Emily Andrews, representing Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, reminded the judges that they had the option to call a special election in order to remedy this issue.
“We just want to hold a valid election,” said Andrews. “This case is about if LCG can change council districts ahead of an election. This violates the Louisiana Constitution because they need to put any charter amendment to a vote
“There is a host of errors,” Andrews added. “I do not think it was the will of the people to delegate the power to reapportion districts to the council. If so, then why would they have that in the first place?
“The council sets forth the qualifications for candidacy and the area of the districts,” she said. “You very rarely see election districts in a city charter. I don’t think it’s wise to do that. Here, the ordinance is the easy fix, but if you do that you then erode the protections in our constitution.”
The court said they would reach a decision soon and issue a ruling from the bench, but did not give an estimate on when they would make their ruling. However, they had established that the Secretary of State’s Office would require a July 22 deadline in order for them to issue a ruling in time for the case to be sent up to the Louisiana Supreme Court for a final appeal.
The judges acknowledged that the primary is set for October 12 and the general election set for November 16, with qualifying August 6-8.