Other voices: Justice in Louisiana

New York TimesSeptember 12, 2012 

A New Orleans federal trial judge ruled recently that Justice Bernette J. Johnson, the second black person ever to serve on the Louisiana Supreme Court, should be the next chief justice because of her seniority.

Gov. Bobby Jindal plans to appeal that decision, a move that utterly disregards the agreement Louisiana made with a group of voters and their advocates in 1992 after the U.S. Supreme Court found that Louisiana discriminated against blacks in the way state Supreme Court justices were chosen.

A court-ordered consent decree temporarily added an eighth justice from a new black district. Johnson was elected to represent the district in 1994, 2000 and 2010.

Under the decree, the court reverted to seven justices in 2000, with Johnson among them. The six white justices, led by the current chief justice, Catherine D. Kimball, argue that Johnson's service between 1994 and 2000 does not count toward her seniority because her seat at that time was not specified by the Louisiana Constitution, which calls for seven justices. A lawyer for the governor said, "The issue on appeal is not who should serve as the next chief justice, but whether the Louisiana Supreme Court should be prohibited by a federal court from interpreting the state's constitution."

But that is not what this case is about. The state constitution says that "the judge oldest in point of service on the Supreme Court shall be chief justice." The consent decree explicitly said that the justice picked to fill the eighth seat would receive the same benefits of office as the others, including credit for time served as a justice.

The attitudes of the governor and the other justices show why voting-rights enforcement remains necessary in Louisiana. The federal courts must carry out the decree by ensuring that Johnson is made chief justice.

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