Governor seeks federal court dismissal
WASHINGTON — Gov. Bobby Jindal’s legal team will square off in court Thursday against parties backed by the Department of Justice and the NAACP in the racially-tinged legal fight over who will become the next chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court in February.
Jindal waded into the debate just prior to the 5 p.m. Monday deadline with his law team arguing the case is out of the federal court’s jurisdiction.
U.S. District Court Judge Susie Morgan in New Orleans set an expedited hearing for 10 a.m. Thursday on Jindal’s motion to dismiss the case from federal court.
The Justice Department and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund are backing Justice Bernette J. Johnson, who would become the first black chief justice in Louisiana.
She is suing in federal court in New Orleans 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.
The debate is whether Johnson’s first six years from 1994 to 2000 on the Supreme 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.”
That judgment was the result of litigation dating back to 1986 that the Supreme Court districts were made to dilute and weaken the votes of minorities, especially in New Orleans.
As such, Jindal now replaces former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards as a defendant.
Kimball has sought for the Supreme Court to settle the matter through internal proceedings. Justice Jeffrey P. Victory’s has asserted he should be the chief justice because he was elected in 1995 and Johnson was not formally elected until 2000. Seniority determines the chief justice, based on the state constitution.
Jindal refused interview requests Tuesday, but his office did email a prepared statement. The governor flew to Iowa on Tuesday to campaign for Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.
“After consulting with the courts and as stated in the pleadings filed (Monday), it is important that this Louisiana-specific constitutional question be decided by Louisiana courts,” Jindal said. “As for who should be the next Chief Justice, that is a matter for the courts to decide.”
The Jindal filings came after a Aug. 6 decision by federal Judge Susie Morgan to deny the Louisiana Supreme Court’s motion to intervene.
After Jindal got involved late Monday, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and attorneys for the original 1986 plaintiffs, including former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, responded with opposition filings arguing it is a cut-and-dried case of Johnson having the most seniority.
Morial, who is president of the National Urban League, said Tuesday that federal intervention was required in the 1980s and 1990s because of racial injustices in Louisiana, and the state government agreed to the terms of the judgment.
Now, after not being chosen as the running mate of presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Jindal is abruptly jumping in to backtrack on the state’s previous agreement, Morial said.
“All they’re doing, unfortunately, they’re making the state of Louisiana look bad,” Morial said. “The whole thing reeks of injustice and it looks like old-time Louisiana politics.”
The state is being represented by Jindal through his executive counsel, Elizabeth Baker Murrill, and attorneys led by Kevin Tully, of the Christovich and Kearney law firm in New Orleans.
In a letter, Kimball specifically requested the state take on the New Orleans firm that already was representing some of the individual justices.
“The state of Louisiana unquestionably has an interest in the judicial branch of government functioning without intervention by federal court” Jindal’s filing states, in this “unprecedented Louisiana Constitutional dispute.”
Jindal’s attorneys contend the consent decree is not the proper jurisdiction for the constitutional debate and the original 1986 plaintiffs led by Morial and Ronald Chisom are no longer in legal standing because “their voting rights are not being deprived or diluted” any longer.
A Tully filing states the courts previously ruled Johnson had “comparative seniority” for “administrative prerequisites only” and that was not a constitutional ruling.
The state Supreme Court still has the purview to rule constitutionally “who is the judge oldest in point of service on the Supreme Court.”
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s response brief argued the consent decree remains valid and established “the Chisom justice as an equal to her co-justices in every respect, including all ‘benefits,’ ‘duties and powers’ as all other justices on the Supreme Court.”
The Supreme Court trying to set up a “proceeding” to decide the matter “infringed” on the federal court’s authority, the brief contends.
New Orleans attorney Ronald L. Wilson also filed a response to Jindal’s intervention on behalf of the original plaintiffs.
“This goes precisely to the voting rights case brought by plaintiffs, representing the remedy for over 170 years of discrimination in voting by the creation of an electoral district that fairly reflects the wishes of the African American voters in that district,” the Tuesday memo states.
“The proposed actions of the Louisiana Supreme Court to decide whether individuals elected subsequent to Justice Johnson can be allowed to pass her in seniority, would dilute, and probably negate, the impact of the voters’ decision to elect and reelect her to this seat.”