Louisiana Supreme Court to Get First Black Chief Justice

Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Bernette Johnson will become the state’s first black chief justice after the court resolved a dispute over seniority.

The state’s high court today credited Johnson with service from 1994, when she was appointed to the panel, to 2000, when she won an elective seat. The decision gave her two months more seniority than Justice Jeffrey Victory and put her in line to succeed retiring Chief Justice Catherine Kimball in January.

“Seniority -- not election -- is the ultimate criterion for succeeding to the position of chief justice,” the court said in the unanimous 23-page ruling, citing the state’s constitution.

Disputes over whether to credit Johnson’s initial time on the court, when she was the eighth judge on what had been a seven-member panel, in June prompted the court to invite briefings on which justice was “oldest in point of service” under the state’s constitution. Johnson in July asked to reopen the 26-year-old federal court case that led to her appointment.

Victory, too, had claimed the right to succeed Kimball, according to a ruling last month by U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan in New Orleans. Morgan said Sept. 1 that state law required that Johnson get credit for her six-year tenure as an appointed justice.

Jindal Intervenes

Victory was elected to the high court in 1994 and sworn in on Jan. 1, 1995. While he didn’t intervene in the federal case, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s administration did, arguing that Morgan should defer to the state Supreme Court. On Sept. 7, Jindal filed notice of his intent to appeal Morgan’s ruling.

“Both election and appointment are described by the constitution as legitimate methods to commence service on this court,” according to today’s Supreme Court decision. “The Louisiana Constitution compels that Justice Johnson’s chronologically longer service be given effect.”

Victory, Johnson and Justice Jeannette Knoll, who would have been in line to succeed Victory had he been deemed to have the most seniority, recused themselves from the Supreme Court proceeding. Three intermediate-level appellate judges voted in their stead.

The Supreme Court case is In re Office of the Chief Justice, Louisiana Supreme Court, 2012-0-1342. The federal case is Chisom v. Jindal, 86-cv-4075, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans).