La. SC justice sues to block debate, vote over chief justice position

Jessica M. Karmasek Jul. 10, 2012, 7:00am


NEW ORLEANS (Legal Newsline) - Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Bernette Johnson, in a lawsuit filed last week, argues she is next in line for the job of chief justice.

Johnson filed her motion in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana Thursday.

The justice is being represented by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law along with local counsel Gauthier, Houghtaling and Williams, Clarence Roby Jr. PC and the Louisiana Justice Institute.

In her lawsuit, Johnson has requested that the court enforce its consent judgment in Chisom v. Roemer.

In 1992, the federal court in Chisom signed a consent judgment to settle a case brought under the Voting Rights Act.

The case alleged that Louisiana's decision to submerge Orleans Parish into a two-member judicial district (the only district with more than one member) diluted the voting strength of African American voters in violation of the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act.

At the time, no African American had ever been elected to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

To allow two sitting white justices to complete their existing term, the consent judgment provided for an eighth justice -- referred to as the "Chisom judge" -- who would be elected from Orleans Parish.

The judgment provided that the Chisom judge would have the same rights, emoluments, powers and duties as the other justices, and the tenure of the time spent as the Chisom judge would count toward seniority on the Supreme Court.

Johnson was elected as a Chisom judge in 1994 and was reelected as a permanent justice in 2000 and 2010.

Meanwhile, fellow Justice Jeffrey Victory argues he has the right to succeed Chief Justice Catherine "Kitty" Kimball, who announced in April that she is retiring from the Court in January 2013.

Kimball, who has served nearly 20 years on the Court, was elected in November 1992 from the state's Fifth Supreme Court District. She became the first woman to serve on the state Supreme Court.

Victory, who joined the Court a year after Johnson, argues that he is senior to Johnson because her years as a Chisom judge do not count toward her seniority.

"We are extremely disappointed in this misguided effort to treat Justice Johnson as a second class justice," Lawyers' Committee Executive Director Barbara Arnwine said in a statement last week.

"The consent judgment is absolutely clear that Justice Johnson is entitled to the same rights as any other elected justice."

Under Louisiana law, the chief justice position shall be filled by the longest-serving justice on the Court.

Johnson's motion requests that the federal court reopen the Chisom case and declare she is second in seniority behind Kimball, among other things.

According to The Associated Press, three federal judges have recused themselves from presiding over the case.

Jay Zainey, Ivan Lemelle and Carl Barbier -- all judges on the Eastern District -- each disqualified themselves Friday.

Zainey cited the law firm representing Johnson; Lemelle didn't provide a specific reason; and Barbier said his daughter is a law clerk for the justice, the AP reported.

For now, the case is in Judge Susie Morgan's hands.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at

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