NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A federal judge on Saturday sided with Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Bernette Johnson in her legal effort to become the state's first black chief justice.
U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan ruled that Johnson had the seniority to succeed Chief Justice Catherine "Kitty" Kimball when she retires early next year.
Johnson had sued to block her colleagues from deciding the matter.
When voters elected her in 1994, Johnson at first filled an appeal court seat but was assigned to serve on the Supreme Court full-time under terms of a civil rights lawsuit settlement. Some argued that Justice Jeffery Victory, who has served since 1995, has served longer than Johnson. They wanted the Louisiana Supreme Court to settle the question.
But Johnson argued that she had served longer than any other justice, and that this is all the state Constitution requires. The federal judge agreed.
"The Court finds that the Consent Judgment provides for Justice Johnson's service on the Louisiana Supreme Court...from November 16, 1994 to October 7, 2000, to be credited to her tenure on the court for all purposes under Louisiana law," Morgan wrote in a 50-page ruling.
Johnson's attorney James Williams praised Morgan for handing down what he called the "right ruling."
"Kudos to Judge Morgan for issuing such a comprehensive and well-reasoned opinion amid all of this," Williams said, referring to Hurricane Isaac and its aftermath.
Williams said he didn't know whether the state's attorneys would appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"I don't know and I hope not," Williams said late Saturday. "I hope that the state, having read the ruling, would accept it without pushing this any further."
He said the ruling effectively renders the state Supreme Court's debate on the issue moot and blocks them from deciding who has more seniority.
Lawyers for the state didn't immediately respond to an email from The Associated Press seeking comment.
Various parties had weighed in on the case.
A motion by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal's executive counsel last month said he believed the matter was an issue for the state to decide. Jindal was not taking a position on who should be chief justice.
Meanwhile, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed a brief supporting Johnson, who went to federal court to make sure her fellow justices don't deny her the chief justice position next year.
The civil rights group's brief said Johnson has undeniably served the longest and that state Supreme Court actions to determine whether Johnson's years as an appeal court judge permanently assigned to the court should count as years of service infringed on the federal court's authority to oversee the civil rights settlement.
Associated Press writer Michael Kunzelman contributed to this report from New Orleans.