Two Washington courts met in a joint session yesterday to remember the life and legacy of Norma Holloway Johnson, the former chief judge of U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. After a 33-year judicial tenure on that court and District of Columbia Superior Court, she died last September.
Matt Olsen, who served as a law clerk for Johnson, remembered her stern courtroom demeanor. He recalled how, during one of the first sentencings he witnessed, "she glared at the defendant over the top of her glasses."
"I wasn't scared for the defendant I was scared for myself," Olsen said, before turning to address both courts' current chief judges.
"You really didn¹t have anything on Chief Judge Johnson," he jested.
District Court Chief Judge Royce Lamberth remarked that Johnson's life saw "a lot of firsts." She became the first black woman to graduate from Georgetown University Law Center when she earned her law degree in 1962, and, in 1997, became the first black female chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Washington.Several speakers noted that Johnson's life did not begin in high places. Born in 1932 in Lake Charles, La., Johnson briefly worked at the town's first black-owned drugstore after graduating high school. Her mother, who Pamela Bethel of the Washington Bar Association described as a woman who "understood the importance of having a dream," sent Johnson to live in D.C. with an aunt so she could attend a better college than she could in Louisiana.
After graduating from the District of Columbia Teachers College in 1955, Johnson taught eighth-grade students at the District's Taft Junior High School before going to law school, an experience she wove into her later life in the courtroom.
"Many of us sitting in this room benefited from her counsel," Bethel said.
While she was characterized as a firm hand in the courtroom, Olsen remembered Johnson displaying a lighter attitude elsewhere. In particular, he remembered a time when she spent half an hour offering encouragement to the young daughter of the custodian cleaning her chambers.
"Looking back, I can't help but think that Chief Judge Johnson didn't see a bit of herself in that little girl," he said.
Annice Wagner, a senior judge with the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, who Lamberth described as being "thick as thieves" with the late judge, spoke mainly about how Johnson's life was a continual series of hurdles.
Wagner said it was not uncommon for others to mistake Johnson for "anything but a lawyer" during her early years, at one point even being denied the right to represent a client before the same federal court she eventually headed.
Wagner closed by saying that Johnson's legacy is "a permanent part of the fiber of the administration of justice in this jurisdiction and beyond."