Chief Justice Bernette Johnson is retiring from her position after spending almost 50 years working law.
For 26 of those years, she served as the only Black jurist on the Louisiana Supreme Court. She seemed excited about starting her new life. “The goal first is to figure out what retirement’s all about. I’ve been working so many years, I’m going to try to figure out what people do who don’t work.” In recent months, Johnson became critical of Louisiana’s racist history; its endurance in Jim Crow laws that have bloated the state’s prison rolls, mostly with Black people; and what she views as a need for judges and lawmakers to recognize their roles in perpetuating that legacy.
Johnson became a harsh critic of the system that consistently failed to fix historic injustices until forced to do so by federal courts. Johnson referenced stats showing that Black people make up 85 percent of young people in Louisiana’s adult prisons. She also spoke on the fact that black children in Louisiana are seven times more likely to land in juvenile detention than white kids.
“Some folks can look at startling numbers like that and not be ashamed or embarrassed. It’s kind of like, they don’t have a conscience. They sleep all right at night,” Johnson said. “So you get to the point, well, I’m trying to get folks in Louisiana to understand – and I have been for I don’t know how many years — that we are an impoverished state because we waste too much money locking people up.”
Johnson went to public school in a segregated system in New Orleans. She then attended the illustrious Spelman College in Atlanta and LSU Law Center, wherein 1969, she became one of the first two African-American women to graduate. Johnson is 77, well past the constitutional age limit of 70 for Louisiana judges, and will be succeeded by Piper Griffin, who like Johnson, is a Black woman who vaulted to the high court straight from Orleans Parish Civil District Court.