Charges of Civil Rights Violations in Dispute over Louisiana Chief Justice Seat

Our Guest Blogger is Billy Corriher, Associate Director of Research for Legal Progress.

The state of Louisiana will soon have its first African-American Chief Justice, unless her fellow Justices succeed in keeping Justice Bernette Johnson from taking her post. Johnson has sued her colleagues in federal court to force them to appoint her to the chief justice spot. The NAACP on Wednesday passed a resolution supporting Johnson’s claim, and her supporters have asked the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to intervene.

Johnson joined the court in 1994, as part of a settlement with DOJ over civil rights violations. DOJ charged that the state’s election system did not give minority voters full representation in judicial elections. To settle the charges, the state added Johnson to the high court as an eighth justice, but since because the state constitution sets the number of justices at seven, she technically remained a member of the state’s appellate court. Johnson was officially elected to the high court in 2000.

In Louisiana, the Justice with the longest tenure on the court automatically becomes chief justice. Johnson served in this role once before, when Chief Justice Catherine Kimball was incapacitated, and none of her colleagues objected. But, as Johnson prepared to permanently take the reins next year following Kimball’s retirement, the other justices suddenly cried foul. They claim that the period in which Johnson was technically an appellate judge does not count, which would mean she is not the longest-serving justice.


In an attempt to resolve the dispute, Kimball outlined a process by which the court would vote on the matter, recusing Johnson and two other justices. Kimball appointed appellate judges to represent the districts covered by the two other justices, but no one to represent Johnson’s district, ensuring that the state’s majority-African-American district would not be part of the decision. The chief justice allegedly left the district out intentionally, saying it had “too big a stake” in the process to be included.

In their letter to DOJ, Thompson’s supporters argue the court’s actions violate the Voting Rights Act. The NAACP’s resolution says the court’s reluctance to seat Thompson represents “an effort to block opportunities which were made available to racial and ethnic minorities by the [1994 settlement].” The state had denied African American citizens representation on the high court until the mid-90’s, and now, the other justices are trying to use a technicality to keep the first African-American chief justice off the bench.