Louisiana Supreme Court chief justice successor at issue

Chief Justice Kitty Kimball
Chief Justice Kitty Kimball

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - It's never been an issue before at the Louisiana Supreme Court; who will be the Chief Judge when Catherine "Kitty" Kimball retires in January of 2013?

The Louisiana Constitution in Article five, section six is clear; "The Judge oldest in point of service on the supreme court shall be chief justice. He is the chief administrative officer of the judicial system of the state, subject to rules adopted by the court."

On the surface Justice Bernette Johnson from New Orleans appears to have the edge. She was sworn in in 1994 to a minority sub district. Behind her is Shreveport area Justice Jeffery Victory. He took office in 1995.

Apparently within the court there is some discourse regarding the status of Johnson's seniority. On Wednesday, current Chief Justice Catherine Kimball signed an order that says in part, "Considering that contrary legal positions have been expressed on the issue of who will succeed to the office of Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court… this matter shall be assigned for written opinion."

The order invites any justice who disagrees with the seniority policy to state their legal position in opposition by July 31.

Legal experts argue that Bernette Johnson filled a seat vacated by retiring Justice Rivius Ortique in 1994. She remained there as an extra, or 8th justice, until another New Orleans area Justice retired in 2000, shrinking the bench back to seven members. Johnson's seat was part of a Federal Consent Decree to boost minority presence on the bench.

The argument is whether or not Johnson's first six years was "temporary" or not. Her attorney James Williams says it most certainly was not temporary. "When Pascale Callegero became the Chief Justice there was no vote, there was no anything," said Williams on Thursday. "When Justice Kimball because Chief Justice there was no administrative conference resolution passed, just an automatic operation of law."

Williams added as an individual and not representing Johnson; "If Justice Johnson were not African-American her seniority over the court would not be being challenged."

Kimball retires January 31, 2013.

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