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Bruce Poinsette of The Skanner News
Published: 14 August 2012

Racial tensions have reemerged over the possible appointment of Louisiana's first Black chief justice.

Justice Bernette Johnson, the most senior member in line, is set to assume the state Supreme Court's top spot. She would replace the court's longest serving judge, Chief Justice Catherine Kimball after she retires in 2013. However, some of Johnson's colleagues say a technicality doesn't make her the most senior justice after all.

She became the state's first Black Supreme Court Justice in 1994 as part of a settlement in a voting rights lawsuit. The decision created an extra Supreme Court seat to help deal with racial disparities in the state's justice system.

According to an NPR article, the argument against Johnson's seniority is that the extra seat was created for an appeals court judge, so even though it was assigned to the Supreme Court, technically it was still an appeals court seat for her first six years.

In the same article, former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, who was a plaintiff in the original voting rights lawsuit, says that they wouldn't have agreed to a settlement if the justice was granted anything less than full status. He also pointed to the racial undertones of this situation as evidence of why the Voting Rights Act is still necessary.

While Johnson argues that the decision shouldn't be left up to the court because the state constitution says the justice with the longest service should automatically fill the position, others, including Republican Governor Bobby Jindal have joined the fray on behalf of the court.

According to a statement made to NOLA.com, Jindal's office doesn't take a stance on who should become the next chief justice but says it is a Louisiana constitutional issue that only the State of Louisiana should decide.

While some have asked whether this would be a situation if Johnson wasn't Black, others have also alluded to ideology politics as a factor in the dispute.

A source in the NPR article suggests there may be some personal animosity towards Johnson amongst her colleagues. Louisiana is a conservative leaning state that picks its judges in partisan elections. Currently, the seven member panel consists of four Democrats and three Republicans. However, Kimball's retirement would signal the loss of a Democrat judge.

The U.S. Justice Department has come out in support of Johnson with a filing, saying her seniority is beyond dispute. The NAACP has echoed these sentiments.

Whether or not the Louisiana Supreme Court will be able to determine Johnson's fate will be decided in federal court on Thursday.

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