Michael Kunzelman / Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS — The Justice Department is backing Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Bernette Johnson's argument that she is legally entitled to become the next chief justice.
In a court filing Friday, attorneys for the department's civil rights division urged a federal judge to rule that Johnson's first few years of Supreme Court service count toward her seniority, making her the longest-serving justice when Chief Justice Catherine "Kitty" Kimball retires next year.
Johnson sued earlier this month to block her colleagues from debating and voting on whether she or Justice Jeffrey Victory served the longest.
Kimball has set an Aug. 31 deadline for justices to file briefs on which colleague is the "oldest in point of service" under terms of the state constitution. U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan has scheduled an Aug. 16 hearing.
Victory's supporters argue that Johnson's first few years of service shouldn't count toward her seniority because she technically filled an appeals court seat when she joined the Supreme Court in 1994. But she was assigned to serve on the Supreme Court on a full-time basis under the terms of a 1992 consent decree, which resolved a federal lawsuit commonly known as the "Chisom" case.
"The initial 1992 consent judgment in this case clearly intended to make the Chisom justice a full and equal member of the Louisiana Supreme Court from that time forward," Justice Department attorneys wrote. "As a full and equal member of that court, the accrual of tenure is one of the benefits to be gained by virtue of time served in that capacity."
The 1992 settlement, which created an eighth Supreme Court district centered in New Orleans, resolved a lawsuit that claimed the system for electing justices diluted black voting strength and violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Justice Department had intervened in the case to support the plaintiffs.
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, a year after Johnson, but his supporters argue the clock on Johnson's seniority didn't start running until 2000.
James Williams, one of Johnson's attorneys, said the Justice Department's filing "speaks volumes."
Kevin R. Tully, an attorney representing the other Supreme Court justices, said in an email late Friday that the court "has not authorized me to comment to the press regarding this issue which is presently before the court."
On Wednesday, Johnson told a panel of state lawmakers that her colleagues don't have the authority to decide who is entitled to succeed Kimball. She also said she rejected a compromise, floated by Kimball, that would have forced her to wait until 2017 to become chief justice.