Louisiana is a state so fraught with racial tension that KKK leader David Duke won 55 percent of the white vote in a governor’s race there only 20 years ago. In the time since, Louisianans have faced racially charged tragedies like Hurricane Katrina and suffered with one of the country’s highest murder rates, which disproportionately takes the lives of Black citizens. Though there’s nothing that could be a silver bullet to solve all of Louisiana’s deep problems with race, putting more African-Americans into positions of power in the state could help enact long overdue change. Alas, as you might imagine, getting Blacks into power in Louisiana is not an easy task.
In a new fight in the Bayou State, the racial divides that have always torn up Louisiana are now tearing up the highest court within its borders, the state supreme court. At the heart of the matter is a fight for the court’s Chief Justice seat, which is being vacated by current Chief Justice Catherine Kimball, who is retiring. Three justices — Bernette Johnson, Jeffrey Victory, and Jeannette Knoll — are now vying for Kimball’s job, but this isn’t any ordinary battle for career advancement. That’s because Johnson is Black and Victory and Knoll are white, which, in Louisiana, changes everything.
While it may seem like just a disagreement amongst coworkers, the battle for Kimball’s seat has already spiraled into a civil rights issue requiring a legal battle. As Rick Jervis at USA Today reports:
Johnson was elected to the Louisiana Supreme Court in 1994 on the heels of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that forced the state court to redraw a district to allow black justices to be elected, said Bill Quigley, a Loyola University law professor who has advocated on Johnson's behalf.
Under an agreement stemming from that ruling, Johnson was elected to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, so as not to oust the sitting justice she would ultimately replace, but she took part in state Supreme Court duties, from penning opinions to earning an equal salary as other associate justices, Quigley said. She was re-elected directly to the court in 2000.
But Justices Jeffrey Victory and Jeannette Knoll, who joined the court in 1995 and 1997, respectively, objected, claiming they have been on the court longer, Quigley said.
In other words, the ruling is going to come down to whether Johnson’s time on the 4th Circuit court can be considered Supreme Court experience. Already many think it can, including the Justice Department and the NAACP. But it’s now up to a federal court judge to decide. The danger of that, of course, is that if the judge decides for Johnson, some people are going to complain and say it’s another case of “affirmative action.” Though that’s perhaps a small price to pay in a state that once almost had a Klan member as its governor in my lifetime.
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