Academic journal article The Yale Law Journal

Reflections on Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr

Academic journal article The Yale Law Journal

Reflections on Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr

Article excerpt

For any student of the law, indeed for any person who believes in the values for which the Constitution of the United States stands, the name Frank Minis Johnson, Jr. should ring familiar. Frank Johnson was the best example of what this country can be. More than simply a model jurist, he was a model American. As debate rages today over the role of the judiciary and whether one should support the appointment of "strict constructionist" or "activist" judges to the bench, Judge Johnson's record stands above the fray. His career demonstrates the wisdom of those great Americans who drafted our Constitution. Our forefathers proved wise enough to provide the courts not only the moral authority--based in our Constitution and Bill of Rights and embodied in people like Judge Johnson--but also the independence necessary to exert that authority at those times when the bedrock of our freedom--the right of all Americans to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness--is threatened.

Judge Johnson's life transcended politics. Almost unimaginable for a federal judge today, Frank Johnson was both a Republican who headed Alabama's Veterans for Eisenhower during the President's 1952 campaign and President Jimmy Carter's choice to be Director of the FBI. Called by the Ku Klux Klan "the most hated man in Alabama" and an "integrating, carpet-bagging, scalawagging, race-mixing, bald-faced liar" by Governor George Wallace,(1) the Judge Johnson I knew was no radical, but a man of deep principle. He once said, "It is the obligation of every Judge to see that justice is done within the framework of the law."(2) From the beginning, his years on the bench were spent in tireless pursuit of this goal.

Judge Johnson's life and mine were connected long before either of us knew the other existed. In December 1955, I was a fifteen-year-old young man living in rural Pike County, Alabama. At just that time, only three weeks after Judge Johnson was appointed to the U.S. District Court in Alabama by President Eisenhower, Rosa Parks, a seamstress from Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. That moment changed both my life and Judge Johnson's life forever.

While my parents did not know Rosa Parks, they knew plenty of women like her. Montgomery was only fifty miles from my home in Troy, Alabama, and more than a few of the women that I knew worked in Montgomery doing the same type of work Mrs. Parks did. Some of them may have ridden the same bus Mrs. Parks rode, and all of them had firsthand experience of the injustice of Jim Crow.

For Judge Johnson, the Rosa Parks case was the first major case he would decide. And just as in the multitude of high-profile cases that would follow, the Judge did not allow the spotlight to diminish his commitment to deliver justice. Together with another member of a three-judge panel, Judge Johnson ruled that segregation in the Montgomery bus system violated Mrs. Parks's right to due process and equal protection of the law. And while I can honestly say that the Montgomery bus boycott that resulted from Mrs. Parks's arrest may have changed my life more than any other event before or since, that decision by Judge Johnson changed the nation.

There was a special quality to Judge Johnson. He knew that the fine lines of law, if used to oppress and to alienate, could become chasms that divide both men and nations. But that was not his vision. And Rosa Parks's case was only the beginning. Judge Johnson was involved in what seem now to be all of the important civil rights decisions for over three decades. In the face of social ostracism, countless threats to his life, two cross-burnings on his lawn, and the firebombing of his mother's house, Judge Johnson held fast to his principles and raised the Constitution as a lonely shield against his adversaries.

The register of his decisions speaks volumes about the man. Among other things, Judge Johnson's rulings integrated the University of Alabama, opened the jury boxes of Alabama courtrooms to African-American men and women, expanded the availability of court-appointed lawyers to poor defendants, and integrated the Alabama State Police. …

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