6.27.2012

Backlash Mounts as the Louisiana Supreme Court Prepares to Seat First Black Chief Justice

(Source: Justice Roars Blog) Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson, who has served as an Associate Justice on the Louisiana Supreme Court for nearly two decades, is poised to assume the office of Chief Justice in February 1, 2013, upon the retirement of the current chief justice.


She follows in an unjustly short line of African American jurists to serve on the state’s highest court: Justice Jesse Stone was appointed to briefly serve in 1979. Justice Revius Ortique was elected to a seat on the Louisiana Supreme Court in 1992.


First elected to the state’s highest court in 1994, Justice Johnson is the second longest serving judge currently on the bench. In accordance with the Louisiana constitution, Justice Johnson is the justice next in line for the office of Chief Justice upon the retirement of the current Chief. Though the state constitution is clear, a controversy is being hatched where none should exist.


Catherine D. Kimball, the retiring Chief Justice, has called for a hearing to determine who will succeed her. She has also issued an order recusing Justice Johnson from sitting on the panel who will determine how the matter will be settled.


“I’m at a loss as to the basis of Justice Kimball’s order,” said Ron Wilson, one of the lawyers who successfully sued the state of Louisiana in 1986 for Voting Rights Act violations related to the state’s method of selecting Supreme Court justices. “The constitution says who the chief justice will be, not the state Supreme Court.”


"Any effort to deny Justice Johnson the right to serve as Chief Justice is clearly an affront to the Voting Rights Act,” said Marc H. Morial, executive director of the National Urban League and a plaintiff in the original law suit.


This issue has its roots in a consent decree that the state of Louisiana signed after losing Chisom v. Roemer in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991. In that case, Ronald Chisom and other plaintiffs successfully argued that Louisiana’s system of electing Supreme Court judges effectively ensured that black voters would never be able to elect a black justice to the court....


"Generations struggled for equal voting rights in Louisiana and the rest of the US,” said Bill Quigley, an attorney who has been working on this case since the beginning. “African American voters elected Justice Johnson to sit on the Louisiana Supreme Court after the US Supreme Court ruled in this case that the Voting Rights Act applied to the Louisiana Supreme Court.  It took over 150 years for Louisiana to allow an African American Supreme Court Justice.  We have come too far to allow anyone to turn the clock back now."


Justice Johnson enjoys tremendous support in the New Orleans community where she is admired as a jurist and recognized for her fairness and concern. Before serving on the Louisiana Supreme Court, Justice Johnson, Justice Johnson was a Judge of Civil District Court for ten years. She is a graduate of Spelman College and was the first African American woman to graduate from the Law School at Louisiana State University. Earlier in her legal career Justice Johnson served as managing attorney of the New Orleans Legal Assistance Corporation, where she represented the interests of over 3000 working poor and moderate income families in the New Orleans area.


“Justice Bernette Johnson isn’t a token judge; she’s a real judge,” said Ron Chisom, the name plaintiff in the original law suit and an active participant in the effort to ensure that Justice Johnson ascends to the Chief Justice seat. “I’m honored to play any role in fighting for her.” [Read Full Story]

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