Dozens of African-American jurists, lawyers skip Red Mass - FOX 8 WVUE New Orleans News, Weather, Sports, Social

Dozens of African-American jurists, lawyers skip Red Mass

Attendees at Monday's event at New Zion Baptist Church Attendees at Monday's event at New Zion Baptist Church

New Orleans, La. — At St. Louis Cathedral, the annual "Red Mass" was held Monday.  It is a time to mark the start of the Supreme Court's term and a time to pray for all of members of the judiciary.

Hundreds of judges in red-draped robes and attorneys gathered inside the church as Archbishop Gregory Aymond presided.

"It's good to see you," Aymond said to one judge.

"Thanks for your service," Aymond said to another.

But notably absent from the Red Mass were scores of African-American judges and attorneys.

They were across town at the New Zion Baptist Church for a different sort of celebration. It was to mark the historic Chisom and Clark cases which opened the door for more African-Americans to have a shot at being elected as judges.

"This was just a wonderful celebration of the Clark and Chisom lawsuits," said State Supreme Court Justice Bernette Johnson.

Johnson skipped the Red Mass as well, and some court observers said the separate celebrations appeared to be linked to the ongoing controversy over whether Johnson should become the next chief justice of the State Supreme Court.

"[It] would obviously seem to be someone's plan to bring some attention to this issue with the Supreme Court," said FOX 8 legal analyst Joe Raspanti.

Earlier this year, Justice Johnson, the only African-American on the state high court, sued in federal court to keep her colleagues on the bench from taking a vote on whether she or Justice Jeffrey Victory should replace Chief Justice Kitty Kimball, who is retiring.  Johnson maintains she is next in line.

"I appreciate all of this community. I'm looking forward to being the next chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court," said Justice Johnson.

State Appeals Court Judge Ed Lombard organized the event to commemorate the Chisom and Clark cases. Lombard denies it was done to snub the Red Mass or anyone in attendance at the cathedral.

"We invited all. This has nothing to do with what's happening over in the French Quarter," Judge Lombard said.  The controversy was referenced during several comments during the service, however.

"The rule of law in the United States of America; a nation of laws, not men," said Mayor Mitch Landrieu from the podium.

The fight is over when Johnson actually became a justice. In a 1992 settlement, which created an eighth Supreme Court district centered in New Orleans, Johnson was initially assigned to the high court as an appellate judge. She occupied that seat until the court went back to seven districts in 2000, and Johnson was then elected as a justice.

Justice Victory said that means Johnson's tenure did not really start until 2000, while he has been on the Supreme Court since 1995.

"It's unfortunate that it's really actually gotten to be a controversy.  It's a pretty simple matter. The justice serving the longest becomes the chief justice, and I feel very confident that at the end of the day Justice Johnson will occupy that seat.  But I wanted to come, sit in solidarity with them," said Mayor Landrieu.

A federal judge sided with Johnson in the matter, and now the case is before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"It seems as if the interpretation of the law so far has been in Justice Johnson's favor," said Raspanti.

Meanwhile, the celebration of the Chisom case at the Uptown church had added significance for many of the attendees.  It was at New Zion Baptist Church that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference was organized as a permanent organization back in 1957.

"Knowing that Reverend A.L. Davis and Dr. King started SCLC here, then it gives us a sense of history," said Justice Johnson.

FOX 8 News contacted the attorney for Justice Victory for comment, but he was unavailable at the time. We also emailed the governor's office for comment.

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