By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - The Louisiana Supreme Court said Tuesday it will seat its first black chief justice next year, concluding a high-profile dispute that divided the court's membership and prompted the reopening of a 20-year-old federal civil rights lawsuit.
Justice Bernette Johnson, the only African American justice on the seven-member court, will succeed current Chief Justice Catherine "Kitty" Kimball when Kimball retires in January, the state's high court said in an opinion Tuesday.
"It looks like a well-balanced and well-written opinion, and I couldn't agree with them more," Johnson's lawyer, Clarence Roby, told Reuters. "To rule otherwise would have really in my opinion continued to cast a pall over how our legal system is viewed by others around the country."
Initially elected to an appeals court, Johnson was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1994 in settlement of litigation brought against the state over racial inequities in Louisiana's voting districts. Six years later, she won election to the court from a redrawn voting district.
Johnson expected to assume the chief justice position because the state's constitution stipulates that the longest-serving member of the court automatically assumes that spot.
But some of her colleagues on the court publicly maintained that Johnson's first six years as an appointed justice should not count toward her seniority and that Justice Jeffrey Victory, who joined the court in 1995, should be the next chief justice.
Kimball attempted to resolve the dispute by asking members of the court to file briefs arguing the issue and having those Supreme Court judges not involved in the dispute to render an opinion on succession, which they did on Tuesday.
"The Louisiana Constitution compels that Justice Johnson's chronologically longer service be given effect," the unsigned court's opinion states, adding that "Justice Johnson is presently most senior for purposes of succeeding to the office of chief justice" under the constitution.
Before that opinion came down, however, 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.
That prompted an outpouring of support from organizations including the NAACP and the Urban League, along with the U.S. Justice Department and a host of state and local elected officials.
On September 1, U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan ruled in Johnson's favor, seemingly bringing an end to the matter. But that prompted Gov. Bobby Jindal to file a notice of appeal to the U.S. Fifth Circuit. Lawyers for the state argued in their filing that the federal court had no standing to intervene in a state supreme court matter.
Tuesday's ruling by the state supreme court would seem to render the appeal moot, though Roby said the state's lawyers have requested additional time to determine how and whether to proceed with their appeal. Roby said Johnson likely would not comment on the matter until the resolution of the state's appeal is clear.
(Reporting By Kathy Finn; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Todd Eastham)