Oral arguments began in Louisiana Aug. 16 in a racially charged legal fight that will determine whether the Louisiana Supreme Court seats its first African-American chief justice.
Attorneys for Justice Bernette Johnson are seeking to reopen the voting rights case that gave the Deep South state its first Black Supreme Court justice.
Johnson joined the Louisiana Supreme Court in 1994 after an eighth seat was created by the settlement of a federal voting rights lawsuit that alleged racial disparities in the state’s justice system.
With Chief Justice Catherine Kimball set to retire next year, Johnson said she thought that the rule of seniority would ensure her place as the next chief justice on the panel. That assumption, however, is being challenged by other justices.
New Orleans lawyer James Williams, a former clerk to Johnson, now represents her in this dispute.
“I can’t say whether it’s racism or not,” he says of the motives of Johnson’s challengers, according to an NPR report. “I will say this: I do not think that this would be happening to Justice Johnson if she were not African-American.”
Lawyers for the state argue, however, that the contention is based on a technicality surrounding Johnson’s first six years on the court. The voting rights settlement on 1991 created an additional seat in the court of appeals that was reassigned to the Supreme Court. So, although she served as a legitimate member of the Supreme Court, she was really an appeals court judge, opponents argue.
Because of the dispute, Kimball in June issued an order stating that the Louisiana Supreme Court would determine the next chief justice.
Johnson’s complaint, however, is asking the federal court to affirm that her first six years on the court were legitimate and thus eligible for consideration in the matter of seniority.
Johnson has backing from the NAACP, the National Bar Association, National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and others.
In a motion to reopen the case, filed by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, James Williams, Clarence Roby, and Tracie Washington with Louisiana Justice Institute, the supporters argue that resolution could not be found in the state supreme court but in federal court.
“…The Supreme Court has no authority to self-initiate an original adjudication of the Chief Justice controversy—particularly when an existing federal court Consent Judgment is the prevailing authority that governs this determination,” the document reads.
Former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, now the president/CEO of the National Urban League and a plaintiff in the original voting rights lawsuit, told NPR he was worried by the state’s attempt to block Johnson’s rightful appointment to chief justice.
“It’s puzzling, it’s troubling, but it’s also a reason why we still need a Voting Rights Act. It’s another example of Louisiana somehow reaching back into the past to play political games,” he said.