Posted: Sep 8, 2012 5:00 PM by Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A lawyer for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal says a federal judge created confusion when she ruled in favor of state Supreme Court Justice Bernette Johnson's bid to become the court's first black chief justice.
Kevin Tully, one of the state's attorneys, said in a statement Saturday that it's unclear whether U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan believes a 20-year-old federal court settlement prohibits the Supreme Court from deciding which justice should succeed Chief Justice Catherine "Kitty" Kimball when she retires early next year.
"The state's highest court is constitutionally empowered to interpret the state constitution, specifically the issue of which judge is 'oldest in point of service on the Supreme Court' as set forth in (a provision of the state constitution)" Tully said. "The ruling creates confusion regarding whether the federal court believes the consent judgment prohibits the Louisiana Supreme Court from carrying out its constitutional duties."
On Friday, Jindal's lawyers asked the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to review Morgan's decision. Tully said Jindal takes no position on who should be the next chief justice.
Morgan ruled on Sept. 1 that Johnson has the seniority to succeed Chief Justice Catherine "Kitty" Kimball when she retires early next year. Justice Jeffrey Victory also argues he is legally entitled to succeed Kimball.
"The issue on appeal is not who should serve as the next chief justice, but whether the Louisiana Supreme Court should be prohibited by a federal court from interpreting the state's constitution," Tully said.
One of Johnson's attorneys, James Williams, said Friday that the appeal is a "disgrace" and a waste of taxpayer money, but he expressed confidence that the 5th Circuit will uphold Morgan's ruling.
Johnson sued in July to block her colleagues from debating and voting on whether she or Victory should succeed Kimball.
The question 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.
The 1992 settlement, which created an eighth Supreme Court district centered in New Orleans, resolved a lawsuit that alleged that 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. His lawyers argue that Johnson's service while occupying the eighth seat can't count toward her seniority.