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La. to name its first Black Supreme Court chief justice

22nd October 2012   ·   0 Comments

By J. Kojo Livingston
Contributing Writer

On Tuesday, October 16, the Louisiana Supreme Court attempted to circumvent an imminent loss in a federal lawsuit regarding the succession of Bernette Johnson to Chief Justice of that court. The court ruled that Johnson should be the state’s first Black Chief Justice.

The court’s opinion was unsigned but says, “The Louisi­ana Constitution compels that Justice Johnson’s chronologically longer service be given effect. Justice Johnson is presently most senior for purposes of succeeding to the office of chief justice.”

JUSTICE BERNETTE JOHNSON

James Williams, one of Johnson’s attorneys, said “It means she can put this bitter fight behind her and begin to unify the judiciary…This is not a fight that Justice Johnson went looking for. We all wish this result could have happened without the fighting.”

The “fight” in question started when current Chief Justice “Kitty” Kimball decided to alter the process of succession for the first time in the history of the state. According to the state constitution the longest-serving justice would ascend, making Johnson the logical person to take the seat. However Kimball and other white justices decided that all of Johnson’s years did not count because she was initially appointed to the bench as a result of a Civil Rights battle.

When federal Judge Susie Morgan ruled that appointment to the bench was just as legitimate as election, Governor Piyush “Bobby” Jindal had state attorneys file an appeal. The governor claimed his interest was only to see that the state was able to make the decision. Also denied by the white justices was the claim that any of their actions were motivated by race.

The case drew national attention and was the subject of two editorials in the New York Times that supported the ascension of Johnson.

National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial issued a statement saying, “I’m relieved that the matter has finally been resolved in accordance with federal law.

“I have always maintained that Justice Johnson’s status has never been in question, and that any attempt to deny her was an ill-advised attempt to undermine both the consent decree which created her seat and the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court’s ruling can now usher in a bright new chapter in the history of Louisiana.”

Morial, a New Orleans native, was chair of the plaintiffs committee in Chisholm v. Edwards, which was settled in 1992 with the creation of a Supreme Court district to allow a fair opportunity for African-American representation. The Justice Department of then-President George H.W. Bush signed off on the arrangement which gave that seat the full rights of a Supreme Court Judgeship. He was also a member of the State Senate team that negotiated the settlement with then-Attorney General Richard Ieyoub and members of the Supreme Court. Additionally, Morial co-sponsored the legislation that effectuated the terms of the settlement.

Locally a coalition of more than a dozen groups held mass meetings to address the issue. Pat Bryant, convener for the Coalition for Justice for Johnson and Beyond told The Louisiana Weekly in an interview, “It’s a great victory but we still have more to go.” Bryant helped pull together a coalition of groups from the Democratic Party, labor unions, churches, student groups, community groups. “We called together those who are concerned about justice and righteousness,” said Bryant. “We understand that those themes cut across all lines.”

Bryant did not have much trouble convincing groups to come together, “People were really amazed at the state’s attempt to make this fine woman who had done so much go through this. We spent time talking to all of the leaders and we got a great response. We’re in a period where there is a conscious effort to re-write the social contract that we have put in place following the Civil Rights era. They want to fast reverse this contract. They want to take away education and everything we have fought for over the past 50 years.”

Bryant sees a bright side to the conflict. “There is now an opportunity for those who have commitment to working-class struggle. There is an opportunity to reach across reach across race lines and gender barriers and build a progressive coalition in this state.”

Attorney Bill Quigley, who assisted with the case, was also upbeat. “Honestly I think it’s long overdue. As an ending it’s a good one for the court; to have the fig leaf of saying that they made the decision themselves. The writing was on the wall. It was clear what was going to have to happen. The fact that they embraced that and made it their own is very hopeful. It’s a shame that it had to come to that.”

As to the real reasons for the attempt to block Johnson, Quigley was clear, “I personally do believe that there is a legacy of systemic racism that shows that we still have a long, long way to go as a society, even in our well-educated judicial institutions. I think it’s disappointing that we had to deal with it.”

Dr. Dwight Webster, pastor of Christian Unity Baptist Church agrees that the motives behind the move were less than honorable, “To name all of the things they said in their statement that it wasn’t says to me that’s precisely what it was.”

Like Bryant, Quigley sees an upside, “I think it can be educational and instructive that we did it. This was not just a victory in the courts but it was Black-owned media, white owned media, community organizing, the rest of the judges in Louisiana, leaders of the Bar, non-lawyers, churches everybody came together and made it absolutely clear to the supreme court that anything less than fairness was not going to be tolerated. For the community it’s a victory that we should not have had to spend all that time and energy on but the resolution on a hopeful note.”

Pastor Webster is also upbeat but questions the use of state money to block Johnson. “In the Christian tradition we say ‘Any way you bless me Lord, I’ll be satisfied.’ It was a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money on the part of the governor to continue this thing. He did not act on my behalf even though he said he represented the State of Louisiana. He tried to make it a state’s rights issue but the Consent Decree made it clear that justice would only be served if there was justice for the Justice to advance to the Chief Justice slot. This will be the first step in a long, long forced march toward justice, righteousness, and freedom and liberation on behalf of not just African Americans but for everybody.”

Quigley felt that Governor Jin­dal missed an opportunity, “Governor played a multi-faced, not faceted role. He originally promised people that he was going to stay out of it then he ended up being the face of the states’ rights approach rather than an equal rights approach. I think the governor probably infuriated everybody. He missed an opportunity to stand up for civil rights, justice and fairness. This it where we should have been six months ago, but better late than never.”

This article was originally published in the October 22, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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