Posted: Jul 9, 2012 5:10 PM by AP
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Several black Louisiana elected officials on Monday asked the Justice Department's civil rights division to intervene in a dispute over whether state Supreme Court Justice Bernette Johnson is legally entitled to become the court's next chief justice.
A letter sent to the head of the department's voting section accuses Johnson's colleagues of trying to dilute the rights of black voters by unilaterally creating a new process for deciding which justice has the most seniority and is therefore entitled to the position.
The letter says the court should have consulted the Justice Department before deciding to debate and vote on whether Johnson, the court's only black justice, or Justice Jeffrey Victory should succeed Chief Justice Catherine "Kitty" Kimball.
A Justice Department spokesman had no immediate comment Monday.
Kimball, who retires early next year, set a July 31 deadline for the justices to weigh in with briefs on which of their colleagues is the "oldest in point of service" under the terms of the state constitution. Johnson, who would be the court's first black chief justice if she prevails, sued in federal court last week to block her colleagues from debating the issue.
The disagreement hinges on whether Johnson's first few years on the court count toward her seniority. When voters elected her in 1994, Johnson technically filled a seat on a state appeals court. But she was assigned to serve on the Supreme Court on a full-time basis under the terms of a federal consent decree.
The 1992 settlement, which created an eighth Supreme Court district centered in New Orleans, resolved a lawsuit that alleged the system for electing justices diluted black voting strength and violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Johnson filled the eighth seat until the court reverted back to seven districts in 2000, when she was elected again.
Victory joined the court in 1995, a year after Johnson, but his supporters argue the clock on Johnson's seniority didn't start running until 2000.
Johnson's colleagues should have cleared their plan to vote on naming Kimball's successor with the Justice Department because it conflicts with the Voting Rights Act and the terms of the 1992 settlement, Monday's letter argues.
"This illegal, arbitrary reconstitution of the court is also a deliberate attempt to roll back civil rights gains decades after they were secured, retrogression for the voters of (Johnson's) majority African American voter district," the letter says. "Thus this is a blatant challenge to the Voting Rights Act itself, the federal consent decree, fundamental fairness, the federal judiciary and the rule of law."
Two attorneys - Loyola University law professor William Quigley and Ronald Wilson - sent the letter to the Justice Department on behalf of a group of officials that includes four state senators, two New Orleans City Council members and U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans. It also was sent on behalf of National Urban League president Marc Morial, a former New Orleans mayor.
Quigley and Wilson both represented the plaintiffs whose lawsuit led to the 1992 settlement.
Victory's attorney didn't immediately return a call seeking comment Monday. A Supreme Court spokeswoman has said the state's code of judicial conduct prohibits Victory from commenting on pending litigation.