Justice memo favors Johnson
WASHINGTON – The legal battle to determine the next chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court is moving forward with the U.S. Department of Justice on the side of Bernette J. Johnson.
Johnson, who would become the first African-American chief justice in Louisiana, is suing to assert her status as the longest-serving member of the state Supreme Court and, thus, the next in line when Chief Justice Catherine “Kitty” Kimball retires next year.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, filed a memo Friday in federal court siding with Johnson over the argument by Justice Jeffrey P. Victory that he may be the longest-tenured justice.
The debate is whether Johnson’s first six years from 1994 to 2000 on the Louisiana court should count toward her tenure when she was assigned to the court as an appellate judge because of the federal civil-rights ruling, known as the Chisom consent decree.
“Pursuant to the terms of the consent judgment in this case, the tenure she gained in the Chisom seat counts towards her total tenure on the Supreme Court,” the memo said. “This Court can and should resolve this question as an issue of federal law under the consent judgment in this case.”
The original lawsuit that led to the consent decree ruling came from the argument that government officials conspired to dilute the strength of black voters through districting issues and, therefore, violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“The initial 1992 consent judgment in this case clearly intended to make the Chisom justice a full and equal member of the Louisiana Supreme Court from that time forward,” the Justice Department memo added. “As a full and equal member of that court, the accrual of tenure is one of the benefits to be gained by virtue of time served in that capacity.”
Victory joined the court in 1995, a year after Johnson, but his backers contend Johnson’s tenure did not officially begin until 2000 when she was re-elected.
The debate has become largely a partisan issue, with Democrats lining up behind Johnson.
Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, and others had asked the Justice Department to intervene.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the New Orleans City Council also are backing Johnson.
“I am glad that the (Justice Department) has confirmed what I have been saying from the beginning, that Justice Bernette Johnson is the rightful justice to ascend to the position of chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court,” Richmond said in an email.
Johnson said last week that Kimball suggested to her that two other justices, Victory and Jeannette Knoll, should serve as chief justice and serve out their terms before Johnson took the position.
“I would encourage Justice Kimball to abort her effort for the Louisiana Supreme Court to change history and rob Justice Johnson of her rightful place as chief justice,” Richmond added.