Jim Bradshaw: Longest-serving state justice was also supporter of Huey Long
John Baptiste Fournet is best remembered as the longest-serving justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court. He was on the bench from Jan. 2, 1935, to July 31, 1970. That’s 35 years and 211 days. He was chief justice for more than 20 of those years.
Nobody has matched that record, but that is not his only political distinction. He also served as president of the state senate and as acting governor, making him the only person ever to hold the top three political jobs in Louisiana. He made further history as a young legislator by trying to block Huey Long’s impeachment in 1929 and in several other political brawls in which he and the Kingfish stood together.
He was Huey’s steadfast friend and ally until the very end, literally. It was only by coincidence, but he was in the capitol building when Huey was shot.
The St. Martinville native was born July 27, 1895, the oldest of 10 children of Louis Michel Fournet and Marcelite Gauthier. He graduated from St. Martinville High School in 1913, earned a teaching certificate from Louisiana State Normal College (now Northwestern State University), and was only 21 years old when he became principal of Morganza High School.
He served in the Army during World War I, then earned a law degree at LSU, where he was president of the law school and a standout football player. He was practicing in Jennings in 1928 when he was elected to the legislature from Jefferson Davis Parish, and immediately stepped into the history books.
Much to Fournet’s surprise, and everyone else’s, Huey made him speaker of the House on his very first day in the legislature. T. Harry Williams says in his prize-winning biography of Huey ("Huey Long," New York, Knopf, 1970), the governor had decided on a more seasoned legislator, but the man he wanted didn’t get re-elected. Fournet had impressed Huey during the campaign and the governor thought he was someone who could be trusted. According to Williams, Fournet “on being ushered into Huey’s office, was astounded (to be) introduced … as the next Speaker.”
As speaker, he used a parliamentary maneuver — some say chicanery — to try to keep the House from impeaching Long. During a stormy night meeting of the legislature, Cecil Morgan of Caddo Parish, one of the impeachment leaders, asked to be recognized. Fournet ignored him and instead took up a motion to adjourn. Pandemonium broke out when the automatic voting machine showed a vote of 67-13 for adjournment. Dozens of legislators claimed their vote against adjournment had been registered as for it.
While “Longs and anti-Longs slugged at each other and threw inkwells and paste pots in every direction,” in Williams’s description, anti-Long members took over the Speaker’s chair and reconvened the session. The House approved articles of impeachment that were finally blocked when 15 senators signed a document saying they would never vote against Long.
Fournet was elected lieutenant governor in 1932 on O.K. Allen’s pro-Long ticket. Huey reportedly asked Fournet to run because he wanted to keep another man out of office. That was Huey’s brother Earl, who was then at odds with Huey.
As lieutenant governor, Fournet was ex-officio Senate president and acting governor when Allen was out of the state, giving him the three-office distinction. But it was a distinction that might not have happened; there was a plot begun almost immediately after the election by unfriendly legislators to use an obscure law to remove Fournet from office. Fournet beat back his opponents with help from Huey, but he did not complete his term. Instead, he entered a special election in 1934 and won the supreme court seat he would hold for the rest of his political life.
Fournet retired from the bench at the mandatory age of 75 and moved to Jackson, Miss. He died there on June 3, 1984, and is buried in St. Martinville.
Political pundits can find traces (and sometimes outright eruptions) of the rancor between pro-Long and anti-Long politicians during all of Fournet’s tenure on the court, and some people criticized him for his political sympathies. But even his enemies grudgingly admitted that Fournet was an able jurist who oversaw much-needed reforms of Louisiana’s courts.
The record speaks for itself: He participated in some 17,500 Louisiana supreme court cases and wrote 1,239 opinions. Of these, 1,043 were majority opinions. Only seven of those were reversed.
In baseball, that would be a Hall of Fame batting average, and it was in Louisiana politics, too. Judge Fournet was inducted into the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame in 2014.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.