Bernette Joshua Johnson Information
|Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court|
|Assumed office |
February 1, 2013
|Preceded by||Catherine Kimball|
|Associate Justice of the
Louisiana Supreme Court|
from the 7th district
|Assumed office |
October 31, 1994
|Preceded by||Seat established|
|Born||June 1943 (age 75–76)|
New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.
Spelman College (
Louisiana State University,
Baton Rouge ( JD)
She is the first African American to have this position, and succeeded Catherine D. Kimball. As of 2017, Johnson is the only Democrat serving on the state Supreme Court, which also consists of four Republicans and two Independents.
Johnson was born in 1943 in New Orleans. She attended local public schools, which were still segregated. She went to college at Spelman College in Georgia, earning a Bachelor of Arts in 1964. She attended the state Paul M. Hebert Law School at Louisiana State University, and was one of the first African-American women to graduate from its law program, earning a Juris Doctor in 1969. 
She interned at the US Department of Justice during the summer while still in law school, helping with cases to implement the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 
Johnson emphasized civil rights and legal assistance to the poor. After passing the bar, she became the managing attorney at the New Orleans Legal Assistance Corporation (NOLAC), serving from 1969 to 1973. 
In 1984, she was elected to the Orleans Parish Civil District Court, the first woman to serve as a judge in that court. She was re-elected in 1990 and in 1994 attained seniority, gaining the position of chief judge of that court. 
In Chisom v. Edwards (1988), a suit started in 1987 and brought under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (as amended in 1982), the federal court found that the state's "system for electing justices diluted black voting strength" in the way that the districts were defined, in violation of the VRA. In 1987 the First Supreme Court District included Orleans and three other parishes. Two justices were elected at-large from this district, which had a white majority population around New Orleans. But Orleans Parish population comprised the majority of the district and was majority African American. The plaintiffs contended that this system diluted their vote, preventing them from electing candidates of their choice. They sought a remedy to have the district divided into two: one for Orleans Parish and one for the other three parishes. 
In Clark v. Edwards, a suit was brought against the state by black lawyers, who argued that the system of judicial election discriminated against them. The court heard expert testimony as to racially polarized voting in Louisiana, for judicial seats as well as other positions, and how few African Americans were elected to judicial positions under the at-large system. Whites did not vote for black candidates, even by a plurality. The court noted that "black citizens comprise about thirty percent of Louisiana's population[,] [b]lack lawyers now hold only 5 of the 178 district court judgeships and only 1 of 48 court of appeal judgeships." (p. 479)
Analyzing districts to determine where there were problems in minority vote dilution, the court formulated a federal consent decree that established sub-districts within some judicial districts. The consent decree operated from 1992 to 2000, establishing a sub-district in Orleans Parish, with the other sub-district covering the three parishes outside, and therefore adding an eighth position to the Supreme Court, known as the "Chison seat". 
In 2000 the state was allowed to revert to seven judicial districts in its election of the State Supreme Court; Johnson ran for the reconfigured 7th Supreme Court District that year, and was elected in her own right.   She was re-elected to this seat in 2010. 
The Louisiana Constitution of 1974 directs that the longest-serving associate justice becomes chief justice should a vacancy occur prior to the next regular election. In 2012 the position of chief justice was going to open based on the incumbent's retirement. Associate Justice Johnson was eligible by strict seniority to become chief justice, but Judge Jeffrey P. Victory, a Republican from Shreveport, also sought the position.
Johnson claimed the right to succeed Kimball under the state constitution. Justice Victory had maintained that he was the legitimate successor because he was elected to the Supreme Court on November 8, 1994, and had previously been a judge of the Second Circuit Court of Appeal for four years.  Johnson's tenure on the Supreme Court preceded that of Victory by less than three months. When her colleagues on the court said that they were going to debate the eligibility of the two candidates, Johnson filed a federal suit on the issue in July 2012.
United States District Judge Susie Morgan ruled in September 2012 that Johnson had the greater seniority under the state constitution. In October 2012, the state Supreme Court members (Johnson, Victory and another candidate recused themselves) declared that Johnson would succeed Kimball because the start of Johnson's tenure predated that of Victory. They concluded that her seniority was more important than the fact that she had not gained her seat on the Supreme Court by election. 
Johnson is the first African American to serve as chief justice in Louisiana. She is the first African-American woman to serve on the Louisiana Supreme Court as both associate justice and chief justice. 
Justice Victory retired from the Supreme Court on December 31, 2014. He was succeeded by Republican, Scott Crichton, a former Louisiana 1st District Court judge from Shreveport.
- "Bernette Johnson, June 1943". Louisiana Secretary of State. Retrieved July 20, 2015.
- "Bernette Joshua Johnson". Louisiana Supreme Court. Retrieved July 19, 2015.
- Miriam Childs, "Chief Honored at SULC 70th Anniversary", De Novo (Newsletter of the Law Library of Louisiana), Vol. 14, Issue 3, Fall 2017; accessed 18 June 2018
- "Election Results". Louisiana Secretary of State. October 1, 1994. Retrieved July 19, 2015.
- Johnathan C. Augustine and Ulysses Gene Thibodeaux, "Forty Years Later: Chronicling the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Its Impact on Louisiana's Judiciary", Louisiana Law Review, Vol.66, No. 2 (Winter 2006)
- "Bernette Johnson sworn in as Louisiana Supreme Court's first black chief justice", The Times-Picayune, 01 February 2013; accessed 18 June 2018
- "Race tinges debate over next La. chief justice". The Alexandria Town Talk, June 24, 2012. Archived from the original on 2013-05-06. Retrieved June 26, 2012.
- Associated Press. "Bernette Johnson sworn in as Louisiana Supreme Court's first black chief justice". New Orleans Times-Picayune, February 1, 2013. Retrieved August 21, 2013.
|New seat|| Associate Justice of the
Louisiana Supreme Court
from the 7th district
| Chief Justice of the
Louisiana Supreme Court|