We’re loath to venture into the racial politics of the battle over Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Bernette Johnson’s bid to become chief justice of the state’s high court. But how must this look to outsiders?
Reuters is reporting that lawyers for Gov. Bobby Jindal are appealing a federal court judge’s ruling that clears the way for Johnson to become chief justice.
BACKGROUND: The Louisiana Constitution’s succession plan for the state supreme court stipulates that the longest-serving associate justice takes the chief justice position when the current chief justice retires or dies. Johnson, the only black member of the court, was appointed to SCOLA in 1994 via a state racial-discrimination settlement with the feds over the high court’s all-white composition. The settlement ensured at least one member of the court would be a minority and it also expanded the court from six to seven seats. Justices serve six-year terms and Johnson’s fellow justices argue her first six years on the court, during which she was serving as an appointed justice as opposed to an elected justice, shouldn’t count toward her tenure. That would give the chief justice reins to Associate Justice Jeffrey Victory.
Retiring Chief Justice Catherine Kimball initially asked her fellow judges to file briefs arguing the issue before outside judges, but Johnson filed suit in federal court and prevailed. In response, the Jindal administration filed an appeal, arguing that the decision over interpreting the Louisiana Constitution should be left to the Louisiana Supreme Court and not to a federal judge — essentially a variation on the “states’ rights” argument, which was blasted by Johnson’s attorney, who suggests there’s a definite racial component to the effort to prevent his client from becoming chief justice: “That’s what the proponents of slavery said during the Civil War. It’s an age-old excuse,” attorney James Williams tells Reuters.
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