Louisiana debates whether black justice should head high court

NEW ORLEANS Thu Aug 16, 2012 6:48pm EDT

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NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Lawyers for a black judge argued on Thursday that Bernette Johnson is entitled to become the next chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court because she has served on the state high court longer than any other sitting justice.

The dispute over whether Johnson should be the first African American to head the Louisiana court has brought to the surface tensions rooted in the civil rights struggle in the U.S. South decades ago.

The question of succession on the Louisiana high court should be an easy one to answer as the state constitution stipulates that the longest-serving associate justice succeeds to the top post. Johnson began serving on the state Supreme Court in 1994 while white justice Jeffrey Victory did not join the court until 1995.

But the argument is over the manner in which Johnson ascended to the court. Although she was elected to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, she was assigned to serve on the Supreme Court as its first black justice as part of a racial discrimination settlement between the U.S. government and Louisiana.

Under that agreement, Louisiana temporarily added a seat to the high court in 1994. The current composition of the court is six white justices and one black.

Because she was initially appointed and not elected to the Supreme Court, her colleagues on the high court argue that she should not get credit for the first six years she served.

The dispute has ended up in the court of federal judge Susie Morgan, who heard arguments from Johnson and the state of Louisiana on Thursday.

"In the 200-year history of the Louisiana Supreme Court, every chief justice has ascended to that position automatically," James Williams, one of Johnson's lawyers, told the judge.

Current Chief Justice Katherine Kimball sought to keep the matter within the high court and has set a deadline of August 31 for people to file their views on the matter with the court.

But aware that her fellow justices would likely rule against her, Johnson chose to bring the matter to federal court.

President Barack Obama's administration has weighed in on the side of Johnson along with the civil rights organization NAACP and the city of New Orleans.

Until last week, it appeared that Louisiana's Republican Governor Bobby Jindal would keep his distance. But late on Friday the governor's office said the Louisiana Supreme Court should decide the issue and the federal government should stay out of the matter.

Johnson's supporters said leaving it to the high court would likely result in her being passed over for the chief justice post.

Judge Morgan ended the hearing without saying when or how she is likely to rule.

(Editing by Greg McCune)

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