Federal judge says Johnson entitled to become La. SC chief justice

Jessica M. Karmasek Sep. 4, 2012, 2:15pm


NEW ORLEANS (Legal Newsline) - A federal judge ruled Saturday that Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Bernette Johnson is entitled to become the high court's next chief justice based on her seniority.

In her lawsuit filed in July, Johnson requested that the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana enforce its consent judgment in Chisom v. Roemer.

Johnson, who was elected as the Chisom judge in 1994 and was reelected as a permanent justice in 2000 and 2010, argues in the suit she is next in line for the job of chief justice.

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.

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.

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

"The court finds that the interpretation of the consent judgment is within its inherent jurisdiction," Judge Susie Morgan wrote.

"The court finds that the consent judgment provides for Justice Johnson's service on the Louisiana Supreme Court from Nov. 16, 1994 to Oct. 7, 2000 to be credited to her tenure on the court for all purposes under Louisiana law."

The judge continued in the 50-page ruling, "As the Supreme Court held in Perschall v. State, the State, including the Supreme Court as an arm of the State, is bound by the terms of the consent judgment."

Former Louisiana Attorney General Richard P. Ieyoub argued in support of Johnson in a filing last month.

Ieyoub, who currently practices with Baton Rouge firm Hymel, Davis and Peterson, served as the state's top lawyer from 1992 to 2004.

When he assumed office in 1992, the litigation at issue -- Chisom -- was ongoing.

Soon after, Ieyoub began the process of trying to reach a settlement in the matter.

He explained in his two-page declaration that an "essential" part of that settlement was the creation of an eighth justice of the state Supreme Court to be elected from Orleans Parish.

"This part of the settlement was crucial because it gave immediate relief to the Orleans Parish African-American voters whose voting strength was being diluted," he wrote.

"This eighth justice seat (commonly referred to as the Chisom seat) gave this underrepresented group an immediate presence on the Supreme Court until the Supreme Court districts could be redrawn at a later time."

The city of New Orleans also backed Johnson.

In an amicus brief filed in the case, the city asked that the federal court recognize the justice's tenure as a Chisom judge and count it as years of service on the state's high court in an effort to "protect the citizens of this parish and city and to prevent the dilution of their voting strength."

"If Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson's Chisom service is not counted towards her point of service pursuant to Louisiana Constitution Article V, Section 6 to permit her to succeed as the next chief justice, then Justice Johnson's participation on the Louisiana Supreme Court pursuant to the consent judgment would not have been 'equal' during this period of assignment," it wrote in its three-page brief.

"This is what is due our citizens, and this is what the terms of the consent judgment mandate."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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