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Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson Retires

The Louisiana Supreme Court congratulated Chief Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson as she retired on December 31, 2020, marking the culmination of over three decades  as a distinguished jurist and a 26-year career on the state’s highest court. Chief Justice Johnson served as the 25th Chief Justice in the Court’s history, the first African American Chief Justice,  and the second female Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court. 

A graduate of Walter L. Cohen High School in New Orleans, where she was valedictorian, and Spelman College in Atlanta, Chief Justice Johnson developed a passion for assisting others  through law while working summers with attorneys of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, working  for the integration of public schools in the south. Chief Justice Johnson joined the annals of  history at various stages of her 50 plus years in the legal profession. Even prior to her ascent to  the Louisiana Supreme Court bench, she made history as one of the first two African American  females to attend and graduate from Louisiana State University Law School in 1969. After working 

as managing attorney at New Orleans Legal Assistance Corporation (NOLAC) (now Southeast  Louisiana Legal Services, SLLS) in 1984, she was elected the first female Orleans Civil District  Court Judge, serving for ten years before becoming Chief Judge in 1994. With a longing to make  a greater difference, in 1994 following the retiring of Justice Revius Ortique, Jr., she ran for and  was elected to serve on the Louisiana Supreme Court, making history as the first African American  female to sit on that bench. On February 1, 2013, Chief Justice Johnson was sworn in as Chief  Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court. 

Chief Justice Johnson is the recipient of numerous highly coveted awards such as the  

1998 Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award by the American Bar Association; the 2000 Medal of Honor presented by the Mayor of the City of New Orleans; the 2000 Women of Wonder Award by the National Council of Negro Women; and the first-ever Ernest N. Morial  Award presented by the New Orleans Legal Assistance Corporation; the 2009 Distinguished Jurist Award presented by the Louisiana Bar Foundation; the 2010 Spirit of Excellence Award from the  American Bar Association’s Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession; the  National Bar Association inducted her into the NBA Hall of Fame and she was awarded the  Distinguished Civil Rights Advocate Award by Attorney Barbara Arnwine on behalf of the Lawyers’  Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law also in 2010; in 2012, the National Urban League  President’s Award; the 2012 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People  Award; the 2012 Exceptional Leadership Award presented by the Louisiana State Bar Association Diversity Committee; in 2013, the Martin Luther King Unsung Hero Award presented  by LSU and the Joan Dempsey Klein Award by the National Association of Women Judges  (NAWJ). In 2016 the Louisiana State Bar Association Board of Governors unanimously voted to  combine the Trailblazer and Human Rights Awards into the aptly named, “Louisiana State Bar  Association Chief Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson Trailblazer Award.” She was celebrated as  the 2018 Good Apple Honoree by Louisiana Appleseed for increasing access to justice throughout  her esteemed career, and received the Whitney M. Young Award by the Southeast Louisiana  Council of the Boy Scouts of America at its Diversity in Scouting Gala. In 2019, she received the  Gertrude E. Rush Award from the National Bar Association for her leadership in the community  and in the legal profession and her concern for human and civil rights and later that year, the  William H. Hastie Award by the National Bar Association (NBA) Judicial Council for excellence in  legal and judicial scholarship and demonstrated commitment to justice under law. 

She was honored in early 2020 when she received the National Association of Women  Judges (NAWJ) Lady Justice Award, which honors those who use their person and position with  equanimity, respect, transparency, and impartiality to advance the values of the NAWJ mission  to promote the judicial role of protecting the rights of individuals under the rule of law. She was 

recently celebrated by the Judicial Council of the National Bar Association as a past chair. 

Earlier this month, Chief Justice Johnson was honored by her fellow justices and the  Supreme Court of Louisiana Historical Society with the naming of the Chief Justice Bernette  Joshua Johnson Supreme Court Museum, which is located on the first floor of the Supreme Court  courthouse, to carry her legacy forward.  

When asked to describe her legacy, Chief Justice Johnson commented that she hoped to  be remembered for applying the law with fairness, turning a nonbiased eye to each case that 

came before her, treating all with dignity and respect, and shining a light on the problems of mass incarceration in Louisiana. When asked how she will spend her retirement, Chief Justice Johnson  responded, “I’ve been a lawyer for over 50 years, a judge for 36 years including 26 at the Supreme  Court, and a Chief Justice for almost 8 years; it has been a privilege to serve the citizens of the  great state of Louisiana; I intend to see what retirement is like before going on to new challenges.”