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Katie Moore / Eyewitness News
Email: kmoore@wwltv.com | Twitter: @katiecmoore

NEW ORLEANS -- On a day when the judiciary traditionally comes together for a blessing, there were new signs of divisiveness on the Louisiana's highest court.

It's all part of the ongoing dispute over who should be the Louisiana Supreme Court's next chief justice.

Justice Bernette Johnson has served on the state's highest bench since 1994. Once Kitty Kimball retires, Johnson will be the longest-serving of all the justices.

The Louisiana Constitution says the longest-serving judge should hold the post.

As in many cases with politics and the law, it should be that simple. But in this case, it isn't.

At the St. Louis Cathedral, Louisiana's judicial branch gathers on a cloudy morning for the traditional 'red mass' for a blessing before the Supreme Court reconvenes.

But as some Supreme Court justices filed into the cathedral, the lion's share of the state's black judges gathered with Johnson at New Zion Baptist Church in Central City.

'I have never been called racist as much as I've been called racist recently,' said James Williams, Johnson's attorney.

Johnson is set to claim the seat of chief justice when Kimball retires in 2013.

'Somebody from the outside could look at this and say, here's just another racial fight in Louisiana. But I think it goes far beyond that,' said WWL-TV Political Analyst Clancy DuBos.

Johnson would be Louisiana's first African-American Supreme Court chief justice because the Louisiana Constitution says the justice who has been on the bench the longest assumes the post. And Johnson has been on the bench the longest.

'The argument against Judge Johnson is that she was technically elected to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal and assigned to the Supreme Court,' DuBos said.

A federal judge created an eighth seat on the high court in the early '90s to integrate the Supreme Court in a lawsuit now known as the Chisom case.

Johnson was the second and last African-American justice to hold it.

'Justice Johnson we did not intend when we were drafting that legislation to make Justice Ortigue 3/5ths of a Justice,' said New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu at Monday's First Zion service.

It's now making its way through the federal court.

'I appreciate all of this community support. I'm looking forward to being the next Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court,' Johnson said.

In the meantime, Monday's simultaneous services, one in the cathedral, and the other at this civil rights landmark, demonstrate the divide on the state's highest court.

'We invited all. This has nothing to do with what's happening over in the French Quarter,' said State Appellate Judge Edwin Lombard, who organized the service.

Dubos said he thinks the fight has more to do with politics than race, that the two justices who also want the seat are more conservative while Johnson is considered more liberal.

The court and the state are now invoking state's rights, saying the federal court has no say in the state matter.

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