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Louisiana Supreme Court Settles ‘Racially Charged’ Dispute over Its New Top Judge

Posted Oct 17, 2012 9:06 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Bernette Johnson will become the first black chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court after the court ruled Tuesday in a dispute over seniority,

The court ruled Johnson, a Democrat, had the seniority that entitled her to the job under a state constitutional provision that does not distinguish between elected and appointed service. The Associated Press, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.) have stories.

Johnson was appointed to the court after settlement of a civil rights suit claiming the state’s election procedures violated minority voting strength. She later won election to the court. Challenging Johnson for the job was a Republican justice, Jeffrey Victory, who was elected soon after Johnson’s appointment. He had claimed appointed service didn’t count toward seniority.

The Wall Street Journal and the Times-Picayune both call the legal fight “racially charged” while the Associated Press deems it “racially tinged.” Civil rights leaders and the New York Times had supported Johnson; the newspaper had seen the dispute as an "unsettling example of how power can trample voting rights.”

Johnson, Victory and a third justice did not participate in the per curiam opinion (PDF). "Although commentators have loudly emphasized them, factors which we do not ascribe any importance to in answering the constitutional question before us include issues of gender, geography, personality, philosophy, political affiliation, and race—all of which have the potential to inflame passion; however, not one of those factors provides so much as a feather's weight on the scales of justice," the court said.

A federal judge had also ruled for Johnson. An appeal challenging the federal court’s jurisdiction will be dropped, a lawyer for the state told the Times-Picayune.

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