The Louisiana Supreme Court is embroiled in a bit of a brouhaha.
Chief Justice Kitty Kimball is retiring in January after 20 years on the state’s Supreme Court and 3 years as the chief justice. Now, the remaining justices are bickering about who should be the next chief.
The Louisiana Constitution makes it pretty clear: The judge oldest in point of service on the supreme court shall be chief justice. The debate within the state: What qualifies as service?
The state constitution provides that Louisiana must be divided into at least six supreme court districts, and at least one judge shall be elected from each district. In 1991, a voting rights settlement created an additional court of appeals seat in Louisiana that was then assigned to be an eighth seat on the Louisiana Supreme Court. Justice Bernette Johnson filled that seat in 1994, NPR reports.
If "service" is defined as the number of years a judge has been actively referred to as "Justice" in Louisiana, Justice Johnson would be the next chief. She would also be the state's first African-American chief justice.
The counterargument, NPR explains, is that Justice Johnson was really an appeals court judge until 2000, when she was elected to a regular seat. By that logic, Justice Jeffrey Victory would become the next chief.
Justice Johnson sued in federal court to assert her claim on the title. Last week, U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan held that Justice Johnson's first six years on the court, in which she served in a special "Chisom" seat, should be credited toward her term of service, making her the rightful heir to the chief justice post, reports The Wall Street Journal.
Now, Gov. Bobby Jindal is entering the fray with a challenge in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the federal courts have no business interpreting the state's constitution.
Before the federal court battle began, Chief Justice Kimball tried to resolve the dispute by asking members of the court to file briefs arguing the issue and having outside judges rule on succession, Reuters reports. According to Jindal, the disagreement should be resolved within the state's courts.
Kevin R. Tulley, an attorney for Jindal, told the Journal:
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. The state's highest court is constitutionally empowered to interpret the state constitution ... The ruling creates confusion regarding whether the federal court believes the consent judgment prohibits the Louisiana Supreme Court from carrying out its constitutional duties ... The Governor takes no position on who should be Chief Justice.
Gov. Jindal is asking the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals -- a federal appellate court -- to rule that federal courts have shouldn't interpret the state constitution. Do you agree? How likely is it that Justice Johnson will become Chief Justice Johnson either way?
- Chisom v. Roemer (FindLaw's CaseLaw)
- Bobby Jindal Appeals Ruling On Bernette Johnson, Black Supreme Court Justice (Reuters)
- Justices Don't Look Kindly on Disputed Provision of Voting Rights Act (FindLaw's Courtside)