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If you like Frank M. Johnson's story, you might also like:
Hank Aaron,
David Boies,
Jimmy Carter,
Ruth Bader Ginsburg,
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Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Frank Johnson in the Achievement Curriculum area:
The Road to Civil Rights

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U.S. Courts
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Johnson's Decisions

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Frank Johnson
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Frank Johnson Interview (page: 8 / 9)

Presidential Medal of Freedom

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  Frank Johnson

As we touch on these decisions over the past 36 years, it's becoming increasingly clear what a profound effect some of your decisions have had on all kinds of institutions. How do you react to criticism that you've been too intrusive as a judge that you've intruded on state government?

Frank Johnson: I don't resent that kind of criticism. If some person is consciously convinced that I've been too intrusive, then they are entitled to that opinion, and they are entitled to articulate it if they want to. But before it has any effect, they are going to have to be a federal judge and have the authority to make that decision.

Do you take that criticism personally?

Frank Johnson Interview Photo
Frank Johnson: No. Sure don't. I get criticism now for ruling in a death penalty case, or affirming a district judge in a school case, but on the appellate courts, you do not have to make the initial decision. So the public is not as sensitive to who is making the final decisions as they are to who makes the initial decision.

You once said that you are not easily ostracized, and that's part of your personality.

Frank Johnson: That's right. I'll do my own ostracizing. You can't ostracize me, because I do the ostracizing. There are some people that I wouldn't fish with if they were sitting on the best fishing hole in the country. Other people, I'd like to go fishing with whether we are going to catch any or not. I'll do my own ostracizing. It's hard to ostracize someone that does their own. And I'm thankful for it. My wife feels the same way. She's from Winston County too.

Didn't she ever wonder if you were making too many unpopular decisions?

Frank Johnson: Oh no. She never criticized any decision I ever made.

In 1978, another unpopular ruling was the "reverse discrimination case" at Alabama State University. Could you tell us about that?

Frank Johnson: That's the Alabama State case. I wrote the opinion in that case, blacks discriminating against whites. It's just as bad, just as illegal and just as unconstitutional, if they are doing it in the operation of a public institution. Discrimination against whites by blacks is just as unconstitutional as whites discriminating against blacks. So it ought to be applied the same way.

What was the case about?

Frank Johnson: It was about the Alabama State University operation which is a black institution. I don't remember the details or the facts.

A white man said he was discriminated against.

Frank Johnson: That's right.

What kind of reaction did you get to that case?

Frank Johnson: Maybe some criticism by some blacks. Maybe some black lawyers that represented the Alabama State institution. But I didn't pay any more attention to that than I would from the whites.

As a federal judge, you are insulated from the pressures of having to be reelected.

Frank Johnson: That's right. I would not ever have accepted a state judge's job, because you can't do your job without being subjected to political reparation. It's the only reason I accepted this job.

Because you're more independent in this job?

Frank Johnson: Independent as you want to be. Some federal judges still think their social status is very important. But that's their problem. It makes their job harder. The job is hard enough without regard to that, trying to figure out what's right and what's wrong.

You had a close call with being the Director of the FBI.

Frank Johnson: Close call? I almost died. Is that what you mean?

No. Just the fact that you almost became the Director of the FBI.

Frank Johnson: I was appointed Director of the FBI, and went through the members of the Senate, and didn't have a single opposing vote. Just about that time, I went for a physical examination, because I was having to give up a life salary, and I needed to buy four or five hundred thousand dollars worth of life insurance. The physical examination showed that I had an aneurysm here about the size of a lemon. They sent me to Birmingham to the university hospital two days later, and it was the size of an orange. By the time I got to Houston Hospital in Texas -- they operated on me the next morning after I got there -- it was the size of a grapefruit. They gave me a picture of it. Saved my life, that appointment as Director of the FBI, saved my life. After about a month, I realized it was going to take me two or three or four months to get through, and I asked the President to withdraw my nomination so they could get someone in there because they needed some leadership. He asked me who I thought, I told them to call Bill Webster. And Bill accepted it. So after I got well, I went back to work, the President called me -- in '78 I guess -- says, "Will you take a place on the appellate court?" I said "Yeah, I will."

What was it like dealing with Jimmy Carter? What was he like?

Frank Johnson Interview Photo
Frank Johnson: He is honest. He is open. He's straightforward. He will always tell you the truth. He may not be the smartest president we ever had, but I would expect he is as honest as any president we've ever had. He might not be the best politician in the world, but you may find it hard to be a very effective politician and always do what's right. That may have been what his problem was. I have a lot of respect for him. Not because he appointed me, or offered me anything. I wasn't looking for an appointment. One Saturday afternoon, I was out in my backyard, mowing my grass, my wife came out and said, "There's a call on the telephone." I said, "Tell them I'll call them when I get through mowing. I'll return it." She said, "Well, it's from Jimmy Carter over in Georgia." So I went in and took it. He wanted to know if I could come to Atlanta and talk with him the next day. That's the first time I ever met him. He wanted advice about some appointments. Someone he could talk to and trust. That was before he asked me to be Director of the FBI.

Do you have any regrets about not being able to take over that post?

Frank Johnson: Director of the FBI? No.

You also were suggested by the Nixon administration as a possible Supreme Court justice.

Frank Johnson: Several times. Don't have any regrets about that. Why regret it when you can't do anything about it? I don't lie asleep at night, or lie in bed not able to sleep because of something that I can't control.

Returning for a moment to your brush with death. You were the patient of a great surgeon who is also a member of the Academy. Could you tell us a little bit about your impressions of Dr. Michael DeBakey?

Frank Johnson Interview Photo
Frank Johnson: He's a great man. At that time, he was probably the most outstanding surgeon in the world. First time I was ever out there, three or four days after he operated on me, he said, "I've got to go to China. So and so will be in here to see you, two or three times a day. I'll be back in five days." He had to go operate on someone in China. Took his whole staff. I've been out there several times. He's operated on me four times. These arteries in my legs, this dacron aorta I have in my abdomen. We got to be good friends.

He's a person of tremendous accomplishment.

Frank Johnson: Oh, yes. A man of high integrity, too. I'll guarantee you that. He's dedicated to his work. I didn't know him when they found this aorta problem. I came back from the University Hospital in Birmingham, my doctor was at my home. I asked him, "Where is the best place in the world to go? And I don't want a second class doctor. Who is the best?" He says, "His name is DeBakey." I said, "Get him on the telephone." He got him on the telephone. DeBakey says, "Sure. But tell him to come now. Those things can burst." Mrs. Johnson and I got on the plane the next morning. We were out there at 3:00 in the afternoon, and spent that time until midnight running me through examinations. They operated on me at 5:30 the next morning.

You felt you were in good hands?

Frank Johnson: Sure, yes. Nothing I could do about it. He had a reputation for being the best one in the United States.

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This page last revised on Apr 06, 2012 14:45 EDT
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