A Strange and Sad Dispute

Chisom v. Jindal is odd and sad. A federal district judge is required to adjudicate a dispute between Justices of the Supreme Court of Louisiana as to who has the most seniority. The most senior will become the next Chief Justice of that court.

At issue is the time-in-grade of Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson who, if all her years of service to the Louisiana Supreme Court are counted, will soon become Louisiana’s first black Chief Justice. Her first six years of service on the court were in a special seat created pursuant to a federal consent decree designed to remedy longstanding Louisiana racial gerrymandering of judicial electoral districts that had prevented black majority districts from electing a Justice of their choice.

The sad part comes not only from a state Supreme Court’s members being unable to settle this among themselves but from the fact that this dispute happened at all. At least from reading Judge Susie Morgan’s opinion in Chisom v. Jindal, this doesn’t even seem like a close case: the consent decree said that the new, temporary, seat that Justice Johnson occupied was to be “equal” to all the others and that she would “receive the same compensation, benefits, expenses, andemoluments of office as are now or as may hereafter beprovided by law for justices of the Louisiana Supreme Court.” Thus her seniority began there, and not when (after redistricting) Justice Johnson won further terms.

I don’t know what it means when state Supreme Court Justices are suing each, or choking each other (details here; further proceedings here), but it can’t be good.

Spotted via WSJ Law Blog.

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6 Responses to A Strange and Sad Dispute

  1. Vic says:

    I’d be curious what gives a Federal Court jurisdiction to hear a case like this. Not that I can imagine any other LA State Court being considered impartial enough for it. I have not read the opinion which should give the jurisdictional justification, but one would hope it’s there somewhere (your link only brings up a few pages – which don’t include it).

    It’s obviously not a diversity case. I’m not sure the $75K rule would be applicable to a LASct Salary (were that the argument). Rooker-Feldman would certainly be touched upon…

    maybe there’s a simple answer, and maybe the Fed Judge stated it in her full opinion. I’d be curious.

    • Vic says:

      BTW, I realize that another possibility is the Federal Question (Civil Rights…). But this does not appear to be an argument like that. The Civil Rights/Equal Protection, etc. type stuff happened when she GOT here seat. Now they are simply figting over recognition of her seniority. I’m not sure it’s that simple of an argument to make and sustain.

      But again, I don’t have the actual opinion before me.

      • There’s a link to the opinion in the post. The answer is that the original federal jurisdiction was under the Voting Rights Act, and the entrance of the consent decree settling the original claim (says the court) creates continuing jurisdiction to enforce it as if it were an injunction. (There’s apparently precedent for that view, although mostly out-of-circuit. )

        • Vic says:

          OK, I was able to make it load (I wasn’t this morning) and I’ve skimmed it.

          I’d really need to give it an actual read, but this just seems hoaky to me. My gut tells me this is one of those (all-too-common) cases where jurisdictional questions are more complex and everyone just agrees to the wrong thing. I’ve seen this, but if you can’t convince the judge that they actually have no jurisdiction, and you don’t want to appeal…

          Fundamentally, a lower Federal Court has no right to tell a State Supreme Ct to decide who its senior judge is, whatever the basis upon which she was seated 20 years ago. This is far more interesting than I have time for, unfortunately.

  2. elliott.gorelick says:

    The Federal govt. was a party to the original consent decree. The State agreed to it and is obligated to uphold it including the Supreme Court. The District Court has jurisdiction and has every right to enforce the decree

    That’s how I understand it.

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