Alumnae Profiles: Chief Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson
Chief Justice Johnson was born in Donaldsonville, La., in Ascension Parish. After attending New Orleans public schools, she enrolled at Spelman on academic scholarship, and received a bachelor of arts degree in political science in 1964. She was one of the first African-American women to attend the Paul M. Hebert Law Center at Louisiana State University, where she received her juris doctorate degree in 1969.
Following law school, Chief Justice Johnson became the managing attorney of the New Orleans Legal Assistance Corporation, where she provided legal services to clients in socio-economically deprived neighborhoods. She practiced in federal, state and juvenile courts, advancing the rights of children, the poor, the elderly and the disenfranchised. In 1981, Chief Justice Johnson joined the city attorney’s staff, and later became a deputy city attorney for the city of New Orleans.
This year marks Chief Justice Johnson’s 29th year as a member of the Louisiana judiciary, having served as an Orleans Civil District Court judge for 10 years, including a term as Chief Judge, before joining the Supreme Court where she has served the remaining 19 years. She was sworn in as chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court on Feb. 1, 2013.
Johnson is the court’s 25th chief justice, the second female chief justice and the first African-American chief justice. She holds an honorary doctor of laws degree from Spelman College, and is a member of the National Bar Association Hall of Fame and the Louisiana Justice Hall of Fame. Recently, her portrait created by artist Ulrick Jean-Pierre, was placed among the permanent collection of portraits of chief justices exhibited in the Louisiana Supreme Court Museum.
On the bench, Chief Justice Johnson emphasizes principles of fairness and equality. As chief justice, she chairs the Louisiana Judicial Council and the Human Resources Committee, and is a member of the Judicial Budgetary Control Board. Chief Justice Johnson has also served as a member of the court’s Legal Services Task Force and the National Campaign on Best Practices in the area of Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts.
She has worked closely with the court’s Mandatory Continuing Legal Education Committee as well as the Committee on Bar Admissions, in an effort to advance the legal profession in the state of Louisiana. She has also championed many successful initiatives, including the training and certification of Limited English Proficiency Interpreters in the courts and implementation of an electronic filing system for the Supreme Court.
Chief Justice Johnson has always been an advocate for social justice and civil rights. She worked as a community organizer with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense & Educational Fund, and at the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.
Having dedicated herself to a life of service, Chief Justice Johnson is widely recognized as a trailblazer in the judiciary and is the recipient of numerous highly coveted awards. In October 2013, Chief Justice Johnson received the prestigious Joan Dempsey Klein Award by the National Association of Women Judges during the organization’s 35th annual conference.