A federal district judge rejected this weekend a racially charged challenge to a Louisiana Supreme Court justice’s seniority that has threatened Justice Bernette Johnson’s path to becoming the court’s first black chief justice.
Johnson, who was appointed to the court as part of a settlement over civil rights violations under the Voting Rights Act, has been serving on the court longer than any other judge, and was prepared under the state’s seniority system to take on the court’s top spot when Chief Justice Catherine Kimball retires. An eighth seat was initially added to the court to address racial disparities. Even today, Johnson is the only black Supreme Court justice in a state in which nearly one third of residents are black. But because the state Constitution capped the number of justices at seven, Johnson was appointed to the appellate court, though she served as a member of the high court for her entire tenure.
When Kimball announced she would retire, some of Johnson’s colleagues alleged that because Johnson was initially appointed as a judge on the state’s appellate court and was only later elected directly to the Supreme Court, her first years serving on the court did not count towards her seniority. But Johnson sued in federal court, seeking enforcement of the initial consent decree. District Judge Susie Morgan sided with Johnson, finding that the consent judgment calls for her six years serving the court as an eighth member “to be credited to her for all purposes under Louisiana law.” Morgan also rejected arguments that the federal court did not have jurisdiction over the issue.
The ruling is subject to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, should Johnson’s fellow justices choose to escalate their efforts to disqualify Justice Johnson from her court’s center chair.