LA Senate Judiciary Committee examines who should be the state’s next Chief Justice

The Louisiana Constitution provides (Article V, Sections 4 & 6)

Section 4. The state shall be divided into at least six supreme court districts, and at least one judge shall be elected from each. The districts and the number of judges assigned to each on the effective date of this constitution are retained, subject to change by law enacted by two-thirds of the elected members of each house of the legislature.

Section 6. 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.

The meaning of these provisions, however, are in dispute as two separate justices of the state’s Supreme Court claim to be the “oldest in point of service on the supreme court.” The New York Times summarizes the situation thusly (h/t Gavel Grab)

Louisiana elected single justices from five districts, and two from a separate district in which black voters were grouped with whites so that no black candidate won. The 1991 United States Supreme Court decision found that this arrangement diluted black votes in breach of the Voting Rights Act, which it said applied to judicial elections.

To avoid displacing the two white justices elected from the special district, the 1992 consent decree added an eighth justice that year from a new black district. After the 10-year terms of the whites expired in 2000, the court was to revert to seven justices. The decree said the justice from the new district would “participate and share equally in the cases, duties, and powers” of the court.

Justice Johnson was elected to represent the new black district in 1994, 2000 and 2010. But the current chief justice, Catherine D. Kimball, argues that Justice Johnson’s service as the eighth justice between 1994 and 2000 does not count toward her seniority because the seat was temporary and not one of the seven specified by the Louisiana Constitution.

Those districts were established by statute (R.S. 13:101, 101.1).

The Louisiana Senate’s Judiciary B Committee met earlier today in the New Orleans Council Chambers to consider the issue. During the testimony Justice Johnson is reported to have stated she rejected a plan that would have had her wait until 2017 to take the seat as chief justice.