LSU Law proudly counts among its alumni scores of successful attorneys, elected officials, business leaders, and distinguished members of the judiciary — including federal district judges, state judges, Louisiana district attorneys, and six of the seven current judges on the Louisiana Supreme Court.
But three LSU Law alumni judges have a very unique claim to fame that might make you do a double-take.
Twins Ron and Don Johnson (’82) are the only brothers to simultaneously serve on the Baton Rouge-based 19th Judicial District Court, the only twin brothers to serve on any Louisiana district court, and just the second set of twins nationally to serve on a district court at the same time. The others are identical twin sisters Shera Grant and Shanta Owens, who both graduated from LSU Law in 2002 and sit on the 10th Judicial Circuit in Jefferson County, Alabama.
We recently caught up with both sets of twins to talk about their paths to the bench and their experiences at LSU Law.
Shanta Owens and Shera Grant
Identical twins Shanta Owens and Shera Grant were only in elementary school when they started to think about becoming lawyers.
“We’ve always had the gift of gab, and we’ve always loved reading and writing and debating and defending positions,” says Shanta, noting their mother, a librarian at the Birmingham Public Library, instilled in them a love of studying, reading, and learning from an early age.
After graduating from high school and earning their undergraduate degrees from Alabama State University in 1999, the sisters began to search for the right law school. The self-described best friends who frequently finish each other’s sentences say their top priority was finding a great law program where they could pursue their shared dream together.
They chose LSU Law, which they credit for providing them with a comprehensive, hands-on legal education that prepared them for successful careers immediately after graduation.
“LSU Law was a wonderful school that really prepared us for the rigors of the legal profession,” says Shanta, “and there wasn’t any doubt that we would pass the bar exam on the first try.”
While at LSU Law, the sisters participated in the Summer Program in Aix-En Provence, France, and were active members in the Black Law Students Association, Phi Delta Phi Legal Fraternity, and Unification of Diversity Under the Law, an organization whose mission was to unite diverse cultures through legal awareness and activities.
“We were very blessed to have gone to LSU Law. We had some great experiences, and we really learned to reason and think like lawyers in the courtroom at LSU Law,” Shera says. “It also definitely prepared us for the stress of being a lawyer.”
“Unlike a lot of law schools, there were no mid-terms at that time,” adds Shanta. “You had one shot at it, and that’s what it’s like being a lawyer. You only have one shot at the jury. It forced you to really rise above and really put your all into it, and it made us so much better as attorneys.”
After graduating from LSU Law in 2002, Shera went to Atlanta and served as a criminal prosecutor with the City of Atlanta and the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office, while Shanta returned to Birmingham to serve as a prosecutor in the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office. Shanta — the elder of the sisters by four minutes — was first elected as a district judge in the criminal division for the 10th Judicial Circuit of Alabama in 2008. She has been re-elected in 2014 and, in 2019, she was appointed by the governor of Alabama to fulfill a Circuit Court vacancy, to which she was re-elected in 2020.
“We were very blessed to have gone to LSU Law. We had some great experiences, and we really learned to reason and think like lawyers in the courtroom at LSU Law.” —Judge Shera Grant
Shera returned to Birmingham about nine years ago, and in early 2016 she was appointed to fill a vacant seat on the Jefferson County District Court. Later that year she was elected to the seat and Shanta presided over her swearing-in ceremony.
The sisters hold the distinction of being the first and only set of identical twins to serve simultaneously as state court judges in Jefferson County, Alabama. Not only do they serve on the same court, they also live in the same neighborhood, just around the corner from one another. In their free time, they enjoy traveling, reading, and spending time with their families, which are also remarkably similar to one another. Shera and Shanta both have 11-year-old daughters and 8-year-old boys, and their husbands grew up together and have been best friends since kindergarten.
“Our families spend a lot of time together, which is really great,” says Shera. “And, honestly, one thing we love to do is get together and talk about recent law developments, whether criminal or civil. We love it so much that our husbands will get tired of it sometimes and ask us if we can please talk about something other than the law.”
Shanta presides over a criminal court, while Shera sits on a civil court, and one thing that is most definitely not identical about the twin sisters is their views on the law.
“Which is actually nice, because it helps us to see different sides of the issue that we might not have thought about,” Shera says. “But it’s funny, because we can go to the same judicial conference and afterward when we get together and discuss it, we’ll find that we saw the same presentations completely differently.”
The sisters’ advice for current LSU Law students is to take advantage of all the unique offerings and experiences on the campus and try to slow down and enjoy the experience as much as possible.
“Looking back on our time, we were always studying and thinking about what we were going to do next,” says Shera. “And you do have to study a lot and it’s hard to not constantly think about what is going to come after law school, but I would also tell students that everything will come in due season, so take time to enjoy the moment. With practice, everything you want to achieve will come to pass.”
“And also know that there are no wrong or right answers,” adds Shanta. “It’s really all about how you support your arguments.”
Don Johnson and Ron Johnson
Don and Ron Johnson were just 14 years old in 1968 when they decided to help desegregate East Baton Rouge Parish schools by voluntarily enrolling at Westdale Middle School. For the twin brothers who grew up poor in the Gus Young Park neighborhood and had never attended school with white students in their lives, it was a decision that would shape the rest of their lives.
“That was a defining moment,” says Ron. “We were testing the waters, and I think there were some aspirations starting to come out in us that we didn’t even fully realize at the time.”
After graduating from Baton Rouge High, the Johnsons earned college and law degrees, with Don graduating from LSU Law School in 1982 and Ron from Southern University Law Center in 1984.
They made history in November 2019, when Ron was elected to the 19th Judicial District Court, where Don has served since 2006, and they become the only brothers to simultaneously serve on the Baton Rouge-based court. They’re also the only twin brothers to serve on any district court in the state.
On December 5, more history was made when Ron’s daughter, Eboni Johnson Rose, was elected to the 19th JDC. She assumes office on Jan. 1, 2021, and will serve with her father and uncle. Don expects both of his twin daughters to follow.
For more than 50 years, the Johnsons have dedicated themselves to advancing racial equity, equality, and opportunity. The brothers began to realize the impact they could have when they attended Baton Rouge High, where they spearheaded a plurality voting initiative that led to the school’s first Black students being selected for the homecoming court.
“It was just a situation where we saw opportunities were lacking, so we decided to try to do something about it. We weren’t doing it for the success of any individual, we were doing it to bring about change for everybody,” Don says. “We didn’t realize we were on the front lines of change—we didn’t think of it like that—but looking back, we can see that all these decisions we were making were going somewhere.”
After high school, the Johnsons became the first members of their family to go to college. They graduated from Southern University with engineering degrees and then left Baton Rouge to start their careers. Don went to St. Louis to work for Southwestern Bell, while Ron worked for General Electric in Cincinnati. Eventually, their desire to have a greater impact on effecting social and racial change led them to shift gears and pursue law degrees.
“I wanted to challenge racially-biased societal institutions and confront social and racial injustice issues facing Black Americans and minorities,” Don says. “I also wanted to prove to myself, my community, and others that with deeply held beliefs and persistent overcoming, everything can be accomplished.”
Don decided to attend LSU Law because “as little boys, we had always been told that LSU and the white schools have the best books, the best equipment, the best education — the best of everything — and I wanted to find out and discover.” He was also driven by the thought of his mother, who cleaned dormitories at LSU but would not have been allowed to enroll at the university at the time she graduated from high school.
“That was something that was festering in me and I said, ‘Mom couldn’t go, so I’m going,’” Don says.
While at LSU Law, Don became the first student to cross-register and take a class at the Southern University Law Center because he “wanted to foster cooperation between bodies from both campuses.” He was also among a small group of students who helped form the Black American Law Students Association, of which he eventually became president, and was instrumental in increasing the student organization’s activity at the Law Center.
“We didn’t realize we were on the front lines of change—we didn’t think of it like that—but looking back, we can see that all these decisions we were making were going somewhere.” —Judge Don Johnson
One of Don’s initiatives was to create study groups for Black students at LSU Law, of which he was among just 10 in his first-year class. At the time, roughly two-thirds of freshman students at LSU Law failed out of law school, and Don was determined to ensure that the Black law students would perform better than average.
“After we formed study groups all but one of us passed the first year, and the tenth student started over the next year and eventually graduated,” he says. “So, in essence, we consider ourselves as the first group where everyone succeeded.”
After graduating from LSU Law in 1982, Don joined the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office and spent two years as an assistant district attorney before opening a private law firm. Throughout the 1980s, he and Ron were heavily involved in voter registration and legal efforts that led to the election of the city’s first Black judges, including Freddie Pitcher Jr., Curtis Calloway, and Ralph Tyson.
“It was phenomenal that we were able to be a part of that effort, and now we sit as benefactors,” says Ron. “We had never realized that we had actually been on the front lines of change, but we went from marching and planning to actually policymaking.”
Don was first elected as a judge in 1999, when he joined the bench of the City Court of Baton Rouge. In 2006, he was elected to the 19th JDC and has since served on all divisions of the court. After earning his law degree from Southern in 1984, Ron served as a Louisiana Assistant Attorney General and chief counsel of the Louisiana Department of Labor, Office of Workers’ Compensation. He then went into private practice for 36 years before he was elected to the 19th JDC criminal bench in 2019. Ron has also previously served as an East Baton Rouge Parish School Board member, a BREC board member, and is assistant pastor of the New Rising Sun Baptist Church.
For Don, continued education is a passion, and he credits his lifelong pursuit of knowledge as a key to his success. In 2006, he earned his Master of Criminal Justice from Loyola University of New Orleans. Two years later, he received a Master of Justice Management from the University of Nevada at Reno, and in 2009 he followed it up with a Master of Judicial Studies from the university’s National Judicial College. He then obtained a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Southern Mississippi in 2014. And most recently, in 2018, he achieved a Doctorate in Philosophy with a major in judicial studies from the University of Nevada, Reno.
“I believe that interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary education is essential to effective judicial decision making. If you want to become a lawyer or a judge you have to learn the law, but you should also learn culture, sociology, criminology, and psychology,” Don says. “It’s going to help you tremendously in what you do.”
He also jokes that his passion for continued education is also driven by sibling rivalry.
“I wanted to show Ron that I was smarter, so after law school, I just kept going,” he laughs. “I said, ‘I’ve got to leave him in the dust.’”
In truth, the brothers are each other’s biggest supporters and sources of inspiration. Growing up in Gus Young Park, Don says one of the biggest challenges was that “so many of our friends seemed unable to believe in the future and never accepted nor welcomed the idea to change things around us.” The Johnsons believed in themselves and their futures, and Ron says they have always encouraged and challenged one another in ways that bring out the best in both of them.
“Out of developing similar interests when we were kids, we were always in a sort of competition. If you can do it, I can do it,” says Ron. “We have always challenged each other, academically and culturally within the community, and pushed one another to higher goals, higher achievements, and higher aspirations to promote the common good.”
When reflecting on their life and career paths that have led the brothers to their seats on the 19th JDC, Don agrees with Ron that it can be directly traced back to their decision more than five decades ago to transfer to Baton Rouge High to help integrate local schools.
“That experience was an epiphany for me,” he says. “We were removing structural barriers, and particularly race as a barrier to education, and we were doing it through a voluntary transfer, it wasn’t a mandate. We were given an opportunity to change the situation and we took it.”