African American Justice Asks Federal Court to Vindicate Her Right to Be Next Chief Justice in Louisiana

July 6, 2012

Justice Bernadette J. Johnson

WASHINGTON, DC-On July 6, 2012 Associate Justice Bernette J. Johnson of the Louisiana Supreme Court filed a motion in federal district court in New Orleans to vindicate her right to be the next Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court based on her seniority.  Justice Johnson has requested that the court enforce its Consent Judgment in Chisom v. Roemer, which created her judicial position, in the face of an attempt by the Louisiana Supreme Court to question whether Justice Johnson’s first six years on the court count in terms of seniority. 

Justice Johnson is represented by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law along with local counsel Gauthier, Houghtaling & Williams, Clarence Roby Jr. P.C. and the Louisiana Justice Institute.  “We are extremely disappointed in this misguided effort to treat Justice Johnson as a second class justice.  The Consent Judgment is absolutely clear that Justice Johnson is entitled to the same rights as any other elected justice,” said Lawyers’ Committee Executive Director Barbara Arnwine.

In 1992, the federal court in Chisom signed a Consent Judgment to settle a case brought under the Voting Rights Act.  The case alleged that Louisiana’s decision to submerge Orleans Parish into a two-member judicial district (the only district with more than one member) diluted the voting strength of African American voters in violation of the United States Constitution and the Voting Rights Act.  At the time, no African American had ever been elected to the Louisiana Supreme Court and Justice Johnson is the only African American currently on the Supreme Court.  

In order to allow two sitting white justices to complete their existing term, the Consent Judgment provided for an eighth justice (the “Chisom judge”) who would be elected from Orleans Parish. The Consent Judgment provided that the Chisom judge would have the same rights, emoluments, powers and duties as the other justices, and the tenure of the time spent as the Chisom judge would count toward seniority on the Supreme Court.   Justice Johnson was elected as a Chisom judge in 1994 and has been reelected from her permanent seat in 2000 and 2010.

Under Louisiana law the Chief Justice position of the Supreme Court shall be filled by the longest-serving justice on the state’s highest court. Justice Johnson is second in seniority behind current Chief Justice Catherine D. Kimball. Chief Justice Kimball announced her retirement in May of this year. On June 12th, Justice Johnson announced her plans to court staff that she planned to assemble a transition team to prepare for her succession to the position of Chief Justice. 

The next day, Chief Justice Kimball, joined by Justices Guidry, Clark and Weimer issued an order introducing a process by which the Louisiana Supreme Court would decide whether the years Justice Johnson spent as the Chisom justice would count toward her seniority on the Louisiana Supreme Court.  Justice Johnson and the two justices that joined the Court while she was the Chisom judge, Justices Victory and Knoll, were recused.  Justice Victory claims that he is senior to Justice Johnson because her years as a Chisom judge do not count toward her seniority.  The Louisiana Supreme Court issued its June 13th order even though the court had stated in an earlier case that the eighth justice was a “full justice” and that it was bound by the Consent Judgment. 

The motion filed on behalf of Justice Johnson requests that the court reopen the Chisom case, declare that Justice Johnson is second in seniority behind current Chief Justice Kimball, stop the process described by the June 13th order, and hold Justices Kimball, Guidry, Clark and Weimer in contempt of court for issuing the June 13th order. 

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