By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Lawyers for Republican Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal have challenged a U.S. federal judge's ruling that would allow a black state supreme court justice to become the court's next chief justice.
Jindal, who is Indian-American, on Friday asked an appeals court to review a lower-court decision to allow black justice Bernette Johnson's to succeed a white chief justice retiring next year.
The dispute over whether Johnson should be the first black justice to head the Louisiana court has highlighted long-standing racial tensions in the state.
The state constitution stipulates that the longest-serving associate justice takes 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 Johnson was initially appointed to the Supreme Court, not elected, as part of a state settlement with the federal government over racial discrimination that expanded the court to seven justices from six.
The other members of the current court, who are all white, contend that Johnson does not have the seniority to be the next chief justice. Johnson's colleagues on the court say that her first six years as an appointed justice should not count toward her seniority.
Current chief justice Catherine Kimball attempted to resolve the dispute by asking members of the court to file briefs arguing the issue and having outside judges rule on succession.
But Johnson took her case to federal court, asking that the 20-year-old voting rights case be reopened and that her full tenure on the Supreme Court be reaffirmed.
In a statement released by one of his lawyers, Jindal said the matter should be settled by the Louisiana Supreme Court and the federal government should not be involved.
"The issue on appeal is not who should serve as the next Chief Justice, but whether the Louisiana Supreme Court should be prohibited by a federal court from interpreting the state's constitution," he said in the statement.
A lawyer for Johnson called Jindal's position a throwback to the days when Southern states used the principle of "states rights" as a smokescreen for racism.
"That's what the proponents of slavery said during the Civil War. It's an age-old excuse," said attorney James Williams.
(Editing by Greg McCune and Will Dunham)