Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson

Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson
Courtesy Louisiana Supreme Court

Bernette Joshua Johnson is a retired Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court.  She is the first African American woman to serve on the Louisiana Supreme Court and the second female to hold the position of Chief Justice. Born in Lemannville, Louisiana on June 17, 1943 to Olivia Joshua and John Joshua, a serviceman in the Navy.

Joshua’s family moved to New Orleans following her father’s discharge from the Navy. Johnson attended Macarty elementary, Andrew J. Bell Jr. high school, and Walter L. Cohen senior high school graduating as Valedictorian and earning an academic scholarship to Spellman College in Atlanta, Georgia. While attending Spellman Joshua witnessed the early Civil Rights movement firsthand.

Joshua graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political science (1964). Following Spellman she moved to New York City and was employed as social worker for youth in the foster child care system. When she returned to Louisiana in 1966, Joshua enrolled at Paul M. Hebert Law Center at Louisiana State University, one of the first African American women to attend and graduate. She received her juris doctorate in 1969.

Joshua married Paul Johnson in the 1960s and they share three children, Paul Jr., Judge Rachel Johnson, and David.  A fourth child, Mark, is deceased.

After receiving her juris doctorate, Johnson joined the New Orleans Legal Assistance Corporation and served as managing attorney from 1969 to 1973.  She later worked for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund and then served as deputy city attorney in the administration of Ernest Morial, the first African American Mayor of New Orleans.

In 1984 Johnson was elected as the first woman judge to serve on the Orleans Parish Civil District Court and was reelected to the post in 1990.  In 1994 Johnson was appointed to the Louisiana State Supreme Court by then Governor Edwin Edwards.  She was reelected in 2000 and again in 2010 and became Chief Justice of the Court in 2012.

Deputy Johnson has served as chair of the Louisiana Judicial Council Human Resources Committee, member of the Legal Services Task Force and the National Campaign on Best Practices (Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts), as well as a member of the Judicial Budgetary Control Board. Her work with the Louisiana’s High Court’s Mandatory Continuing Legal Education Committee on Bar Admissions allowed her to advocate for the training and certification of Limited English Proficiency Interpreters in Louisiana’s courts.

Justice Johnson’s has received many honors and awards, including an Honorary Doctorate in Law (Spellman, 2001), LSU Law Center’s Hall of Fame (1996), Distinguished Jurist Award and the President’s Award for Exceptional Service (Louisiana Bar Association).  She is a member of the American Judges Association, the National Association of Women Judges, Louisiana State Bar Association, and the American Bar Association. Chief Justice Johnson is a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority.

Chief Justice Johnson retired in December 2020. Although retired  she continues to serve the community of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana while enjoyed the time she spends with her family, friends, and those that she mentors. One of her most noted mentees was Theo Shaw, one of the Jena Six, who after serving time in prison, eventually obtained a law degree in 2018.  From 2018 to 2019 he clerked for Chief Justice Johnson.