Johnson, known for her no-nonsense courtroom demeanor, was appointed to the District Court in 1980, becoming the first African American woman to take the bench in Washington federal court.
From 1997 to 2001, Johnson became the first woman to serve as chief judge. She took senior status in 2001 and retired in 2003. According to a release from the court, Johnson, who was born in 1932, died Sept. 18; the cause of death was not provided.
“Judge Johnson’s groundbreaking legal career has been an inspiration for everyone who knew her. She was a great judge and a great friend. We will miss her dearly,” U.S. District Court Chief Judge Royce Lamberth said in a statement.
In 1962, Johnson became the first African American woman to earn a J.D. from Georgetown Law Center. After a brief stint in private practice, Johnson joined the Justice Department in 1963, serving as a trial attorney in the civil division. She also served as an assistant corporation counsel from 1967 to 1970 in the city's Office of Corporation Counsel, now known as the Office of the Attorney General.
Johnson was appointed to the District of Columbia Superior Court shortly after Congress created the court in 1970. Ten years later, former President Jimmy Carter made history when he named her to the federal bench.
Towards the end of her career, Johnson was at the center of an investigation into allegations that she guided cases involving friends and associates of then-President Bill Clinton to judges who were Clinton appointees. A special committee cleared Johnson of any wrongdoing in early 2001.
Attorneys who argued before Johnson described her style as “no-nonsense.”
“She was very strict and by the book and didn’t suffer fools,” said Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom partner Michele Roberts, who argued cases before Johnson starting in the late 1980s. Roberts added that when she acts as a judge during moot court or other programs, “I’m always playing Judge Johnson.”
Roberts said that as an African American woman, she saw Johnson as a trailblazer. “She had obviously gone through some trials and tribulations that I had not, because of women like her.”
Crowell & Moring partner Stuart Newberger, who knew Johnson from his time as a clerk for former U.S. District Judge Harold Greene and then from arguing before her as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, agreed that Johnson “ran a tight ship.” She was known as a tough sentencer, he said, but added that she applied the same strict standards for both sides.
“She expected people to treat the court and her with respect and decorum,” Newberger said.
U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Ron Machen, who was an Assistant U.S. Attorney when Johnson was chief judge, said in a statement that Johnson’s “passing is an enormous loss for the D.C. legal community.”