The only African-American justice in the Supreme Court of Louisiana has accused that her colleagues in the bench are trying to block her promotion. In papers filed in federal court on Thursday, Associate Justice Bernette Johnson has sought an order to compel her colleagues to allow her succeed retiring Chief Justice Catherine Kimball.
The position of the chief justice in Louisiana is usually reserved for the judge with the maximum years on service on the seven-member court. While Johnson argues that her 17 years on the court should make her the second most senior justice after Kimball, the retiring Chief Justice has already questioned whether Johnson’s first six years on the court should count for purposes of seniority.
Johnson received a temporary judicial position in 1994 following a consent judgment in a Voting Rights Act case, Chisom v. Roemer. The case had objected the state’s system of electing two justices from a district that included the Orleans Parish. The suit had alleged that the district was the only one from which more than two Supreme Court justices were elected, thus unfairly diluting the voting powers of minorities. The consent judgment signed in 1992 allowed the two sitting white justices elected from the district to finish their term, but also created a temporary eighth position on the seven-member board. Johnson won the temporary spot in 1994 and was elected to a permanent seat in 2000 followed by her reelection in 2010.
Johnson argued that her six years in the temporary eighth position should count towards her seniority, as by consent the position was created to set aright discrimination and imbalance. The position continued until balance was restored. Under the terms of the consent decree, Johnson had the same duties and powers as the other justices, and according to Johnson, the terms of the decree also included that the time she spent on the bench in the temporary seat would count toward her tenure.
However Chief Justice Kimball has questioned whether Johnson’s first six years should count towards calculating her seniority, thus in effect expressing her deep displeasure about the consent decree which allowed an African-American judge into the Supreme Court of Louisiana. Despite clear presence of the consent decree, the act of the state in recognizing the unfairness of the situation and remedying it by creating a temporary eighth position until balance was restored; Kimball signed an order initiating proceedings to determine who would become the next chief justice, and bringing into question both the prior acts of court and state and the validity of the consent decree.
Barbara Arnwine, who is representing Johnson said, “We are extremely disappointed in this misguided effort to treat Justice Johnson as a second class justice.”