Long Time Coming: Louisiana elects first Black Chief Justice of State Supreme Court

debate_2_article-small_18207  February 1, 2013 was a historic day in the state of Louisiana’s vibrant political history as the state’s very first Black Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court was sworn into office. New Orleans’s Bernette Johnson, who was once an organizer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the 1960’s, was able to successfully fight off challenges being mounted against her by her colleagues in the State Supreme Court where she serves, who instead favored Shreveport’s Jeffrey Victory for the position. The Chief Justice of the Court’s place was to be filled upon the retirement of the now former Chief Justice Cathy “Kitty” Kimball. According to state law, the Supreme Court Justice accumulating the most years on the Court is next in line of succession, who in this case was Bernette Johnson. Victory and his supporters argued, however, that he held a legitimate claim to the Chief’s position because Johnson’s time on the Supreme Court began after being appointed, whereas he was elected. He conveniently ignored the state’s history of racially discriminatory electoral practices used in the process of judge selection, which unfairly prevented her election in the first place. [1]

A U.S. district judge’s ruling in October returned in Justice Johnson’s favor. (*) Oddly, the Court’s ruling placed special emphasis on the fact that they did not “ascribe any importance” to “issues of gender, geography, personality, philosophy political affiliation, and race.” [3] While it is true that her seniority guaranteed her position as Chief Justice as a matter of legal principal, it’s hard to believe the judges weren’t keenly aware of the racial dynamics surrounding this case. When Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey Victory and his colleagues questioned the merit of Justice Bernette Johnson’s years of service as an appointed judge, they weren’t just questioning which Judge held seniority, but were essentially challenging the 1994 ruling against Louisiana’s historically racist electoral process. Whether Victory is simply ignorant of the fact that Louisiana’s law minimized the votes of its Black citizens, or if he in fact agrees with that law’s sentiments as a matter of principle, only he can surely know.

Noted Sources and Citations:

  1. Associated Press. (2013, Feb. 2). State Has its First Black Chief Justice. Retrieved via The American Press.
  2. Kunzelman, Michael. (2012, Oct. 16). Bernette Johnson Set to Become Louisiana’s First Black Chief Justice. Associated Press. Retrieved via http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/16/bernette-johnson-louisiana-first-black-chief-justice_n_1971500.html.
  3. Victorian, Brande. (2012, Oct. 17). It’s About Time! Bernette Johnson to be Louisiana’s first Black Chief Justice. Madame Noire. http://madamenoire.com/225290/its-about-time-bernette-johnson-to-be-louisianas-first-black-chief-justice/.

Other Notes:

*The ruling held: “Both election and appointment are described by the constitution as legitimate methods to commence service on this court.”

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