Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson, who has served as an Associate Justice on the Louisiana Supreme Court for nearly two decades, is poised to assume the office of Chief Justice February 1, 2013. She was first elected in 1994, and Justice Johnson is the second longest serving judge on the bench after current Chief Justice Kimball. According to the State Constitution, the Chief Justice shall be chosen by order of seniority. The Louisiana Constitution is very clear on this point:
Article 5, §6. The judge oldest in point of service on the supreme court shall be chief justice. He is the chief administrative officer of the judicial system of the state, subject to rules adopted by the court.
Despite this apparent clarity, Chief Justice Kimball has called for a hearing to determine the next Chief Justice. In the context of this event, I think it is important to consider this:
The factors determining the oldest in point of service should not include the process by which a justice was chosen to serve on the Supreme Court. The only factor should be how long he or she served in that capacity. The intent of the drafters of the Constitution was to insure that the people and the judicial system would have as Chief Justice the person who had the most experience in carrying out the duties of a Supreme Court Justice compared to his or her colleagues. That person is clearly and indisputably, Justice Bernette J. Johnson.
As background, Justice Johnson’s seat on the court has a particular and important history. In 1986, Civil Rights lawyers sued the the state of Louisiana for Voting Rights Act violations related to the state’s method of selecting Supreme Court justices. The basis for the case focused on racial gerrymandering that acted to deny African-Americans in our State, especially those in New Orleans, a fair opportunity to elect a Supreme Court Justice of their choice.
After litigating the case, the State of Louisiana lost and accepted a consent decree that mandated the immediate addition of a Judge to the Supreme Court, elected from New Orleans. Justice Revius Ortique was first elected to this seat in 1992, followed by Justice Johnson in 1994. The quirk of this consent decree was that, in order to expedite the election of a Justice to comply with the Voting Rights Act, the seat would technically be a seat of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal. Despite this circumstance, the Justice elected pursuant to this consent decree was legally entitled to all the benefits, powers and advantages of those properly due a Supreme Court Justice, including serving as a bona fide Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court. At no time did the Court consider this seat, prior to Judge Johnson’s reelection to a Supreme Court seat in 2000, anything but a Justice of the Supreme Court.
Friends, it should be plain to see that Justice Johnson is properly and rightfully positioned to be the next Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court. I ask that those who hope to challenge this fact reconsider their actions and join me in welcoming Justice Johnson as our next Chief Justice.