The Two-Way
3:29 pm
Tue October 16, 2012

Louisiana To Soon Have State's First Black Chief Justice

Louisiana's Supreme Court ruled today that Justice Bernette Johnson has the seniority that entitles her to become the panel's chief justice at the end of January, NPR's Debbie Elliott tells our Newscast Desk.

Johnson will be the first African-American to sit in the chief justice's seat. The state's first Supreme Court was created in 1812.

As Debbie reported in August for Morning Edition, the court was the focus of a racially charged power struggle:

"Johnson joined the Louisiana Supreme Court in 1994, elected to a special seat created to remedy racial disparities in Louisiana's justice system. ... Johnson thought she was next in line on the seven-member panel to be chief justice, based on seniority. But some of her colleagues say that's not the case."

The issue raised by those who opposed Johnson succeeding Chief Justice Catherine "Kitty" Kimball, who is retiring:

A technicality, as Debbie reported, involving "Johnson's first six years on the Louisiana Supreme Court. [A] voting rights settlement from 1991 created an additional court of appeals seat that was then assigned to be an eighth seat on the Supreme Court. So even though Johnson participated as a full member of the Supreme Court, technically, some argue, she was really an appeals court judge."

But as The Times-Picayune writes this afternoon:

"In its ruling on Tuesday, the court found that Johnson's years as an appointed judge counted, taking pains to dismiss the high-volume charges over the past several months.

" 'Although commentators have loudly emphasized them, factors which we do not ascribe any importance to in answering the constitutional question before us include issues of gender, geography, personality, philosophy, political affiliation, and race — all of which have the potential to inflame passion; however, not one of those factors provides so much as a feather's weight on the scales of justice,' according to the 21-page opinion."

It was a unanimous, 7-0 decision. Three lower court judges took part as "justices ad hoc" because Johnson and two other Supreme Court justices recused themselves.

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