La. high court rules Johnson will be state’s first Black chief justice

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by Michael Kunzelman
Associated Press Writer

NEW ORLEANS (AP)—The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Bernette Johnson will be the court’s next chief justice, resolving a racially tinged power struggle that wound up in federal court.

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NEW CHIEF JUSTICE—This undated photo provided by the Louisiana Supreme Court shows Justice Bernette Johnson of New Orleans. (AP Photo/Louisiana Supreme Court)

The court’s unanimous ruling said Johnson’s years of appointed and elected service on the court give her the seniority that entitles her to succeed Chief Justice Catherine “Kitty” Kimball early next year and become the court’s first Black chief justice.

Justice Jeffrey Victory of Shreveport had argued he had more seniority than his New Orleans colleague and deserved the position. The court sided with Johnson, saying its ruling was based strictly on the law, “without passion or prejudice.”

“Although commentators have loudly emphasized them, factors which we do not ascribe any importance to in answering the constitutional question before us include issues of gender, geography, personality, philosophy, political affiliation, and race—all of which have the potential to inflame passion,” the court’s opinion said.

Any requests for the court to reconsider Tuesday’s ruling must be filed within five days.

In July, Johnson filed a federal lawsuit to block her colleagues from deciding the matter. U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan ruled in her favor last month but stopped short of ordering the state’s highest court to name Johnson as Kimball’s successor.

The debate hinged on whether Johnson’s first few years on the court count toward her seniority. When voters elected her in 1994, Johnson technically filled a seat on a state appeals court. But she was assigned to serve on the Supreme Court on a full-time basis under the terms of a federal consent decree.

The 1992 settlement, which created an eighth Supreme Court district centered in New Orleans, resolved a lawsuit that claimed the system for electing justices diluted black voting strength and violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Johnson filled the eighth seat until the court reverted back to seven districts in 2000, when she was elected again.

Victory joined the court in 1995, a year after Johnson, but argued that her years of appointed service shouldn’t count when deciding which justice is “oldest in point of service” under the terms of the state constitution.

His colleagues disagreed, concluding that Johnson has the most seniority “through an unbroken chain of both appointed and elected service on the court.” The court said it couldn’t find “any reason in the constitution to limit the experience that matters to only elected experience.”

“Both election and appointment are described by the constitution as legitimate methods to commence service on this court,” its opinion said.

Johnson, Victory and a third judge who stood to be second-in-line for the position if Victory’s argument prevailed were recused from deciding the matter. Three state appeals court judges were tapped to sit in their place and participate in the debate.

Lawyers for Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office have asked the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to review Morgan’s Sept. 1 ruling. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the federal case was moot in light of Tuesday’s decision.

A lawyer for Jindal has said the governor wasn’t taking a position on which justice should succeed Kimball but believed the state Supreme Court should decide the matter.

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