The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights under Law filed a motion Thursday on behalf of a Louisiana Supreme Court justice vying to be the next chief justice.
The motion, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, is asking the court to enforce its consent judgment that created Associate Justice Bernette Johnson's position. Working alongside the Washington-based Lawyers' Committee is local counsel from Gauthier, Houghtaling & Williams, the Louisiana Justice Institute and Clarence Roby Jr. P.C.
Earlier this year, Chief Justice Catherine Kimball announced that she would retire from the court next January. The Louisiana Constitution dictates that the judge with the longest tenure is granted the position of chief justice.
Johnson was first elected to the court in 1994, following a consent judgment to resolve violations of the Voting Rights Act in Chisom v. Roemer. The consent judgment, which the plaintiffs are seeking to enforce, created an eighth justice elected from Orleans Parish, which was previously a two-member judicial district. The splitting of the Parish was deemed unconstitutional because it watered down the voting strength of African Americans. In 2000, Johnson was re-elected when the court retracted to seven members.
Johnson was the first African American ever elected to the Louisiana Supreme Court, according to the plaintiffs' complaint.
"[T]he Supreme Court has no authority to self-initiate an original adjudication of the Chief Justice controversy—particularly when an existing federal court Consent Judgment is the prevailing authority that governs this determination," a plaintiffs' memorandum states.
Associate Justice Jeffrey Victory is challenging Johnson's claims that she should succeed Kimball on the basis that her six years served on the court as the Chisom judge does not count as years of service on the Louisiana Supreme Court. Victory was first elected to the court in 1995.
"She was involved in decisions and was treated no differently than any other justice," said Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel and senior deputy director for the Lawyers' Committee. "Now to suggest and even raise the issue of those years not counting, it violates the federal court order and beyond that it's not even consistent with the court's decisions.
The Lawyers' Committee became involved in the case at the behest of Johnson.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is the sole defendant listed on the motion. A call to Louisiana Attorney General James Caldwell was not returned. Judge Victory likewise could not immediately be reached for comment.