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Johnson takes oath in public ceremony

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette J. Johnson - the state's first black chief justice - took her oath of office in a public ceremony Thursday in New Orleans. Several hundred gathered in front of the Supreme Court building in the French Quarter to see Johnson sworn in.

The event followed a private swearing-in that took place on Feb. 1. Johnson succeeded Catherine "Kitty" Kimball as chief justice after Kimball retired from the court.

The chief justice position goes to the Supreme Court judge with the most seniority. Johnson assumed the post only after she and her colleagues resolved a dispute last year involving how her years of service should be calculated.

"This is a halleluiah day," said former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, now president of the National Urban League. He and other speakers invoked memories of the civil rights struggle as they hailed Johnson's achievement.

Johnson kept her remarks brief after taking the oath near the end of an hour-long outdoor ceremony on a cold, windy day. She expressed gratitude for the show of support from the crowd while noting that the weather was so cold that her mother, in her 90s, had to leave the ceremony to go indoors.

"I'm going to show you how much I love you," Johnson told the crowd. "We're going to end this as quickly as we can." With her six fellow justices sitting nearby, there was no mention of last year's legal battle over her seniority, a racially tinged dispute that itself grew out of a decades-old litigation over the racial makeup of court election districts. Johnson filed a federal lawsuit in July after her colleagues said they would debate whether she or Justice Jeffrey Victory, who is white, had the seniority that entitled them to succeed Kimball.

U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan ruled in September that Johnson had more seniority, but stopped short of ordering the state's highest court to name Johnson as Kimball's successor. The state justices ended the power struggle in October, ruling that Johnson's years of appointed service counted when deciding which justice is "oldest in point of service" under the state constitution.

Voters elected Johnson in 1994 to a state appeals court seat, and she was assigned to the Supreme Court as part of a settlement of an earlier lawsuit that claimed the system for electing justices diluted black voting strength and violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965. She served as an eighth justice until the 2000 election, when she was elected from a new, mostly black Supreme Court district and the court reverted back to seven members.

Victory joined the court in 1995. Johnson, Victory and a third judge who stood to be second-in-line if Victory's argument prevailed were recused from debating the matter.

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