La. Chief Justice Johnson Avoids 5th Circuit Battle, Takes Oath - U.S. Fifth Circuit
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La. Chief Justice Johnson Avoids 5th Circuit Battle, Takes Oath

As the final parades roll through New Orleans today, the State of Louisiana can celebrate more than just Mardi Gras.

There's a new Chief Justice in town, y'all. And the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals didn't have to select her.

The changing of the guard -- from former Chief Justice Kitty Kimball to new Chief Justice Bernette Johnson -- occurred on February 1, but it was preceded by plenty of drama.

The Louisiana 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 appeal 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.

The state constitution also provides: "The judge oldest in point of service on the supreme court shall be chief justice."

The legal brouhaha on the bayou centered on what qualifies as service.

Johnson, who ultimately won, argued that "service" is defined as the number of years a judge has been actively referred to as "Justice" in Louisiana. Justice Jeffrey Victory countered that Justice Johnson was really an appeal court judge until 2000, when she was elected to a regular seat. By that logic, Victory would have been elevated to chief.

Justice Johnson sued in federal court to assert her claim on the title, and 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.

Gov. Bobby Jindal challenged that ruling in the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the federal courts have no business interpreting the state's constitution. Chief Justice Kimball, however, averted a federal appellate battle by rallying the Louisiana Supreme Court to decide the matter. The court sided with Johnson, ending the litigation.

If you missed seeing Chief Justice Johnson take her oath at the start of the month, you'll have another opportunity to celebrate her new post on February 28 when the court hosts an "Historic Investiture Celebration Ceremony." For more information, contact the court at chiefjustice2013@lasc.org.

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