Junior justice counts
From the drama playing out in federal court, political circles and press coverage, one might assume that the legal dispute between Justices Bernette Johnson and Jeff Victory over who will be the next chief justice of the state Supreme Court would have a profound effect on its future balance and direction. Not hardly.
Who the next chief justice is means a lot to the Supreme Court’s longtime employees, for the chief, as its administrator, historically runs its business, including hiring and promoting, signing contracts and dealing with the other two branches of government.
But as for what really matters, how laws are interpreted, the court will be influenced not so much by who assumes retiring Chief Justice Kitty Kimball’s title as by who takes over her vote, starting when qualifying opens today to fill her unexpired term.
The contenders for chief justice— Johnson, a New Orleans Democrat, and Victory, a Shreveport Republican,—represent the philosophical poles of the court. But they have done so already for the 17 years they have served together and will continue doing so after one of them holds the gavel.
While the court’s decisions as a whole have moved to the right in recent years, close votes in liability and criminal justice cases still often split between three Democrats—Justices Johnson, Jeannette Knoll and John Weimer—and the three Republicans—Justices Victory, Greg Guidry and Marcus Clark. The deciding vote in many cases has been chief centrist Kimball, a Democrat who wins all-around praise for her fair, even, considered judgment.
While Kimball has great admirers among trial attorneys and the business community—usually the main competing forces in judicial elections—the two are less interested in fairness and evenness in the next justice than in a solid vote for their side.
Given the stakes and the lack of competition in congressional races (besides the battle between Republican incumbents in the merged 3rd District), the election in the Baton Rouge-based 5th Supreme Court district could be the most important this fall statewide.
The business and legal communities across the state see it that way. Said a top New Orleans lawyer, “This will not be a local election.”
Nor will it be boring or just one. With four Court of Appeal judges and two district judges pawing at the post for the November primary, a December runoff is all but certain.
What could crowd the line-up more would be if former Baton Rouge District Attorney and LSU football great Doug Moreau up and decides he wants to be on the Supreme Court, too. He expressed interest two months ago, but may have had a change of heart. After all, to run he probably would have to give up his gig as radio commentator for LSU football games. Seat on the high court, with its heavy responsibilities and workload, or seat in the press box of Tiger Stadium, with a microphone: Which would you take?
Considering demographics, the candidate with the best chance of making the primary cut appears to be the lone Democrat, appellate Judge John Michael Guidry, who is African-American, as are 32% of the voters in the eight-parish district. That leaves as many as five Republican judges, some more conservative than others, going for broke for the other runoff spot.
Flat going broke is any lawyer trying to honor all requests for the maximum contribution of $5,000 from the various candidates’ finance committees.
“The worst thing you can do is support the winner,” attorney Mary Olive Pierson says. “Then you’ll have to practice before the losers, and they will all hate you.”
Pierson’s solution: to file to run herself. Her intent is not to win but to defend her wallet. Weighing her choices, she reasons, “$675 to qualify or a $5,000 contribution (times five)? I’m going with Door No. 1.”
The feisty and quotable litigator believes she will add to the race, saying, “At least we will have some comic relief.”
Hoping that her colleagues will be laughing with her and not at her, she is encouraging other lawyers to qualify, too, saying, “If that many judges can run, why can’t we?” She might also be seeking strength in numbers, for who wants to be standing alone come December before all those black-robed losers?
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