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.”