Lost in all the excitement about elections qualifications two weeks ago, the Louisiana Supreme Court issued a ruling which may have an impact on the mostly-sleepy, if sparsely-contested, Caddo Parish Commission races next month.
In the middle of that period, the Court ruled on the appeal to overturn the sentence of a convicted murderer because the (Third) Confederate (Battle) Flag flies next to the parish courthouse. Appellants, among other things, argued that having that symbol near the courthouse primed jurors, of whom 11 were white, to levy a verdict of guilty and capital sentence (hence the appeal bypassing the Second Circuit Court of Appeals).
Writing for the unanimous majority, Chief Justice Catherine Kimball affirmed what had been noted in this space previously, that the burden of proof to demonstrate swaying of juror opinions by the flag legally was considerably higher than offered by the defense, which during the trial raised no objections to the flag’s placement.
… in the present case, even conceding Caddo Parish placed the confederate memorial outside the district courthouse at the turn of the century, refurbishing and reaffirming it half a century later with the confederate battle flag, defendant has made no showing the parish currently maintains the memorial because of the adverse affect it would have on the administration of the criminal justice system with respect to black defendants. Defendant also failed to show the memorial creates an environment giving rise to a constitutionally significant and unacceptable risk that one or more of the jurors in his case acted with discriminatory intent in returning his or her verdict, particularly at the sentencing stage of the proceedings, on the basis of his color and not on the moral culpability of his acts and his individual character.
This squares consistently with existing jurisprudence on the matter: in order to argue that a capital sentence connotes racial discrimination, either in the specific case it must be shown that racially prejudicial intent was fomented within jurors or in general actions by government itself must be shown to have been pursued out of racially prejudicial intent and motives. The Court said, even considering such a claim on appeal, nothing of the sort was demonstrated.
The Shreveport Times, whose editorialists apparently did not read the opinion, mistakenly opined that the Court ruled only that the defense’s appeal was untimely and that “the court did not recognize that the memorial and flag might be offensive to some people,” whereas the Court actually said “this Court can likely take judicial notice that the display of a confederate flag would be offensive to some.” However, left unaddressed (obviously as it had nothing to do with the case) was the ownership of the land on which the flag and the older memorial sit, which in a brief for the case filed with the Court by the American Civil Liberties Union argued had not properly been deeded to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who placed the memorial and flag subsequent to the presumed deeding.
To date, this has not emerged as an issue in the Commission races. Many special interests in the past have asserted the removal of the items, but had no legal basis on which to justify this because of their presence on private land despite close proximity to the Courthouse. Were that ownership claim invalidated, instantly the matter would become a political issue and hot potato for Caddo Parish.
And the reason why it has generated no candidate commentary is the distinct lack of partisan competition, much less any competition, to the Parish Commission contests. With the withdrawal of Democrat Milton Cameron from opposing Republican incumbent District 4 Commissioner Matthew Linn and assuring him of reelection, that leaves seven of the 12 incumbents without opponents and in three of the other contests the competition is intra-party. Two have at least one partisan candidate against a no-party candidate. But none now match at least one Democrat versus at least one Republican.
Further, one of the no-party contests, only one of two races without an elected incumbent running (the other was elected without opposition), features all black candidates, who might be expected to stump for removal of the flag if possible. Nor would the issue seem a likely campaign talking point in the Republican incumbent/no-party matchup in District 1, nor between the GOP incumbent and challenger in District 11.
As discouraging as it may be that no contest for the Commission this fall will be expected to have candidates with sharply contrasting issue preferences presenting them for public debate, it’s understandable with the parish awash in money from Haynesville Shale mineral rights that voters would not find much about which to complain. Still, the question of actual parcel ownership appears to be one that will have to be addressed in the future, and, pending its outcome, perhaps that of whether the parish will permit a symbol infused with both positive and negative meanings for the community to continue its divisive presence.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 11:00