Justice Bernette Johnson is poised to become the first black chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, now that her colleagues have rejected a racially charged challenge to her seniority.
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 retired. Even today, Johnson is the only black Supreme Court justice in a state in which nearly one third of residents are black. As part of the 1994 settlement, an eighth seat was initially added to the court, 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 first 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. 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.”
Gov. Bobby Jindal appealed the ruling to the federal appeals court. But while that appeal was pending, Chief Justice Kimball asked her state Supreme Court colleagues not involved in the dispute to issue their own decision. In an opinion released Tuesday, the justices sided with Johnson, holding that “Justice Johnson is presently most senior for purposes of succeeding to the office of chief justice.” The decision appears to have rendered the appeal moot, but remarkably, even with the federal trial court and the majority of the state Supreme Court justices siding definitively with Johnson, the state’s lawyers have apparently asked for more time to consider how to proceed, according to Reuters. Hopefully, this is just procedural caution, and not an even bolder manifestation of hostility toward racial justice.