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Arguments heard over who should be La. Chief Justice

20th August 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Mason Harrison
Contributing Writer

The battle over who will become the next chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court made its way before a federal judge Aug. 16 as lawyers for Justice Bernette Johnson—who is vying to take over the position after the state’s current chief justice retires—argued that the state of Louisiana is engaged in the same tactics of racial obstruction that were employed in the Old South in its effort to bar Johnson, who is Black, from assuming the state’s top legal post.

James Williams, a former Johnson protégé and attorney in this case, said Johnson “is being treated differently” because of her race and that her opponents are relegating her position and tenure on the Supreme Court to being “three-fifths of a justice,” raising the spector of the famous Three-Fifths Compromise.

But representatives for Gov. Bobby Jindal pushed back against the assertion that the state cares anything about Johnson’s race and countered that the issue is a matter for state court and does not fall under federal jurisdiction.

“I bristle at the suggestion that anyone is trying to put impediments in the way of Justice Johnson,” said Phelps Gay, an attorney representing the governor. “The state has no position on who should be the next Supreme Court chief justice.”

Johnson is seeking federal intervention in her quest to be seated as chief justice following calls for her to sit out the process of replacing the state’s retiring top judge over questions about her seniority.

U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan heard spirited arguments on both sides about the proper role of the federal government in the case.

Johnson’s attorneys said the matter should be settled in district court because of a federal consent decree—issued to increase the number of minority-held judgeships in Louisiana—that created a state circuit court judgeship bearing all of the rank and privileges afforded to the justices on the state’s highest court.

But allowing a federal court to decide who should lead the Louisiana Supreme Court is a matter for the state to decide, according to attorney Kevin Tully, who also appeared before Judge Morgan on the side of the governor.

Tully argued that Morgan was being asked to interpret the meaning of a federal consent decree that “doesn’t answer the question before the court.” Tully asserted that the regulation of state judgeships under the consent decree has nothing to do with who should be the next chief justice on the Supreme Court.

Federal intervention in the case would require Morgan “to interpret the Louisiana Constitution,” Tully said.

But Williams countered that because Johnson began her career as a judge due to the federal consent decree, all matters related to her judgeship should be settled in federal court. “Since she is a Chisom judge,” Williams noted, “then we have to look to Chisom to settle this case,” he said, referring to the unofficial moniker given to the decree.

Both sides in the case have until Aug. 19 to finish submitting additional documents before Morgan is expected to rule sometime this week on whether the federal judiciary will hear and decide the case. State court proceedings on the matter are expected to get underway no later than the end of the month.

Morgan is also tasked with deciding if federal laws barring certain kinds of cases to proceed concurrently in state and federal court apply in the Johnson case. Officials with the Justice Department, who are weighing in on the side of Johnson and her legal team, have asked Morgan to allow the case to proceed in federal court.

Supporters of the embattled justice filled the court room and spilled into an overflow room to witness the first hearing in the case. Many wore “Chisom buttons” to show their support for Johnson and the consent decree that made her judgeship possible. Johnson’s efforts have also been trumpeted on local talk radio.

WBOK radio host Gerod Stevens urged listeners Thursday morning to appear in federal court to back Johnson’s efforts.

“I didn’t know the particulars of the case, but, when I heard about it from Gerod, I made a U-turn and came down here,” said Audrey Salvant, who works in government for a Plaquemines Parish elected official.

Ron Chisom, who was on hand for the Johnson hearing and whose name is used to label the consent decree he helped to secure, said the state’s argument centers on the notion of state’s rights. “When I hear talk about state’s rights,” Chisom said, “I get nervous,” adding, “I don’t trust them and this matter should be settled in federal court.”

This article was originally published in the August 20, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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