The Louisiana Legislature has moved forward a constitutional amendment that would remove a particularly ugly part of state law.

Voters will get to decide the fate of the proposal, which would strike down a law with a racist past and allow Louisiana to get in line with nearly every other state.

Only Louisiana and Oregon currently have laws that allow felony defendants to be convicted without unanimous jury decisions.

Instead, in an effort to nullify the power of black jurors, the state’s constitutional convention in 1898 created a provision that allows guilty verdicts in many felony trials even when three of 12 jurors voted not guilty. That requirement was later changed to 10, but the shameful past of the law is more than enough reason to question it and give voters the chance to change it.

The 1898 convention’s stated goal was to erode the political strength of black citizens. One of the ways the delegates did that was to ensure that even if several black people were on a jury, their white counterparts could still guarantee a conviction.

In Oregon, too, the strange allowance of non-unanimous verdicts has a racist past. And in that state, like our own, political leaders are seeking a change to a requirement that every other state has embraced.

To their credit, all our local representatives – Beryl Amedee, R-Houma, Truck Gisclair, D-Larose, Tanner Magee, R-Houma, Dee Richard, a Thibodaux independent, and Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma – voted in favor of sending the amendment to the voters. Local Sens. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, and Norby Chabert, R-Houma, also supported the measure. Ed Price, D-Gonzales, and Gary Smith, D-Norco, were absent for the final vote in the Senate.

Tellingly, the change drew praise from legislators and at least one civil rights organization.

“Louisianans now have the opportunity to change our state’s non-unanimous jury law, a policy that is rooted in racism and that consistently risks sending innocent people, most often from communities of color, to prison,” said Sarah Omojola, policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The time has come for Louisiana to join the rest of the nation and finally part ways with a throwback to a time when so many of our fellow citizens lacked basic rights – and when the government actively sought to take away those rights. The Legislature has now cleared the way for that process to take place.

 

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