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If you like Frank M. Johnson's story, you might also like:
Hank Aaron,
David Boies,
Jimmy Carter,
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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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Johnson's Decisions

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Frank Johnson Interview (page: 9 / 9)

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  Frank Johnson

Looking back on what you have accomplished as a judge, what advice would you give to youngsters who might be interested in pursuing this line of work?

Frank Johnson: Study. Be honest. Don't violate the laws and get in trouble. Get you a good spouse that will support you, because you never stop working and studying. The fact that you get the place just means you've started as far as the work and the pressure is concerned. That's the only advice I'd know to give.

What qualities do you think make the difference between someone who achieves and someone who doesn't achieve?

Frank Johnson: Hard work, if you're talking about people of equal qualifications. Hard work.

I don't care if you are a federal judge on the appellate bench, or if you dig ditches for a living, you have to work hard to do a good job. That means you can't just walk in a courtroom and not know anything about a case. You have to study it before you go, and when you get out, you have to study it before you write an opinion. You can't just walk in without working. You can't walk out without working. It takes work. You have to be dedicated in order to do it. That means you ought to get into some kind of business you like, because it's easier to work hard. It's easier to do a good job if you like it.

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I don't guess you look back and see a lot of drudgery in your life.

Frank Johnson: No second thoughts. Even if I saw it, I wouldn't admit it. Nothing I can do about it.

As a judge, how much importance do you attribute to sheer instinct, a gut feeling?

Frank Johnson: None. Not when you are an appellate judge. None. Because the record is already made. The issues are already formulated. The law, in most instances, exists that controls the issues that are presented. So it's just work. Nothing innovative about being an appellate judge unless you have some case that comes up that there is no precedent for, and nothing to bind you.

So instinct has not played an important role in your career?

Frank Johnson: No, shouldn't play any, and as far as I know it hasn't played any, as far as my judicial career is concerned.

When you look at the criminal justice system today, do you still see injustices that you wish would change?

Frank Johnson: I think we've made a lot of progress in the last 20 years in the criminal justice system. Back when I first became a federal judge, there was no basis for paying a lawyer that you appointed to represent an indigent defendant. So you had to appoint lawyers that were willing to do it. Some of them -- if you appointed -- and they were real busy doing something else, they put it on a back burner, and (the defendant) did not get proper representation. I required the United States Marshall here to pay a young lawyer that I had appointed to defend a person for the expenses -- not pay him his attorney's fee -- but the expenses that he incurred personally in representing this indigent defendant. The U.S. government got real excited about it; I didn't have any authority to order the Marshall to do it, and it got to the Justice Department. They requested the Congress pass a bill paying expenses to lawyers that represented indigents. And then it wasn't a year before they passed a bill that authorized judges to pay lawyers that were appointed to represent indigents. A minimum type of fee, but that's how it got started.

It seems like there is still racism inherent in a lot of institutions. Would you say that's true?

Frank Johnson: Yes, sure would.

Is that ever going to change?

Frank Johnson: I don't know. You are going to get discrimination to some degree, on and off, not consistently. You can't take the humanity out of a human being.

One writer said that your willingness to do the right thing has led you on "a long odyssey into the dark side of the human spirit." Do you feel that the human spirit is dark?

Frank Johnson: No. I've seen some people whose human spirit is dark, but you are talking generally. No. I operate on the theory that most people are basically honest and want to do what's right. If I didn't believe that, I don't believe I could get along. Unless they prove otherwise to me, I'll operate on that theory. I intend to keep doing that.

Over the past couple of decades, you've denied repeatedly to journalists that you are any kind of crusader for what's right, and yet you've been given credit for tremendous changes in this country.

Frank Johnson: I'm not a crusader in the decisions that I've rendered while I'm a judge, for this reason: I did not make the facts, and in most instances, I did not apply law that didn't already exist. How can you be a crusader when you are not doing anything except taking the facts that someone else has created, and apply the law that exists?

The legal profession gets a lot of bad press these days. There are a lot of bad lawyer jokes, and so forth. What would you say to encourage someone to pursue the legal profession?

Frank Johnson: I wouldn't try to encourage them to pursue the legal profession unless they had some inclination to get in it, or some interest in it, and were genuinely inquiring with an open mind as to whether they should. And then, until I knew and talked to them, I wouldn't encourage them. There is nothing worse that happens to a person than getting in the wrong profession. And I think 99 percent of the people can determine the profession they want in without anyone encouraging them or discouraging them. Make up their own minds.

What is so exciting, as far as you are concerned, about the law? Why has it been such a tremendous source of fulfillment for you?

Frank Johnson Interview Photo
Frank Johnson: Because it's so important to the continued existence of our society. We can't continue without laws, and without application of laws in a nondiscriminatory manner. You could go back before we ever had a constitution, go back before we ever had a government, and everyone would govern themselves. But you have to have laws. If you have laws, they have to be abided by. If they are not abided by, you have to have someone to enforce them. Our society requires it.

I sense that's been a very rewarding life for you.

Frank Johnson: I feel that I've had a very rewarding career.

It's kind of a unique job, isn't it, being a federal judge? A uniquely responsible position, too.

Frank Johnson: That's right. There are not many federal judges. You can't let the position give you the idea that you can't make mistakes, or you can't do anything wrong. You still have to be sensitive to what you are doing, and make certain that you do right. It puts you under a lot of pressure, because a lot of people are looking at you just to make sure you do right. They want to criticize you. So you try to do the best thing you can, do what's right.

People talk about stress in their lives. "What a stressful job!" How do you deal with that stress? That pressure on your shoulders?

Frank Johnson: Doesn't bother me. I don't know of any job that doesn't have stress.

Looking back, is there anything you would change about your career?

Frank Johnson: Oh, my goodness, yes. You'd have to give me two weeks to think of the answer for that. You can't look back. You have to do what you think is right. You have to do it in the best manner you can, and then you don't look back. If you do, you would be under a lot of stress.

We want to thank you for your service, and for speaking with us today.

I've enjoyed talking with you. Nice interview.

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