Good decision

Justice Charles Johnson prides himself on work with the law school

Justice Charles Johnson '76 laughs during an informal lunch with students at the law school.

As a jurist, Washington State Supreme Court Associate Chief Justice Charles Johnson is objective in hearing cases - but he admits to one area of prejudice.

"Judges are supposed to be impartial, but I am biased in my selection of clerks," said Johnson '76, the only graduate of Seattle University School of Law to serve on the state's highest court.

Only a handful of the 36 clerks he has had over the years came from schools others than Seattle University School of Law. He said he's so confident in the legal education the students receive and has such respect for the faculty recommending them, that he favors graduates of his alma mater.

Johnson, who has served on the court for 18 years, has long been involved with the law school, teaching a course, serving on alumni boards, attending events, judging Moot Court competitions and even writing a Law Review article. He also has externs from the law school.

"We are so grateful for all Justice Johnson does for the law school and our students," Dean Kellye Testy said. "He embraces the law school's mission and is helping our students and graduates gain crucial education and experience."

"I saw the benefit of exposing students to the workings of the Supreme Court," he said. "I count working with students as one of the highlights of being on the court. It's enriching and rewarding to be part of the law school."
Justice Charles Johnson

Johnson became involved with the law school after being elected to the Supreme Court in 1991.

"As a member of the Supreme Court, I became more interested in the education of lawyers than I had been," he said.

His main mentor on the court, former Justice Bob Utter, taught a course at the law school. Justice Johnson started co-teaching with him and eventually took over the course on State Constitutional Law. He remains an adjunct professor.

"I saw the benefit of exposing students to the workings of the Supreme Court," he said. "I count working with students as one of the highlights of being on the court. It's enriching and rewarding to be part of the law school."

His students and clerks feel the same way about him.

"Justice Johnson was a tremendous mentor to me," said Cynthia Jones '06, who clerked for him. "He has a deep, institutional knowledge of the court - so much so that on several occasions when I would be discussing a case with him, he could cite off the top of his head cases that his colleagues wrote over a decade ago, and those cases were always right on point and helpful to the subject at hand."

Johnson said he is glad to be able to provide opportunities for students, and he has been pleased to see the development of practical skills training, including externships and clinical experience, that have come about since he was in law school.

"I really supported those opportunities for students to give them the opportunity to do good by helping poor folks and to get practical experience," he said. "I think it's good for students, and it's good for society."

Johnson was elected in January 1991 and is the most senior justice on the court. He attended law school while working full-time in a Tacoma lumber mill. While considering the major legal questions that come before the court, he also take part in many law-related, professional and other community activities. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Washington Association for Children and Parents, is co-chairperson of the Washington State Minority and Justice Commission and the Equal Civil Justice Funding Task Force.

He is co-founder of the Washington Hispanic Academic Achievers Program Two Justices Scholarship. He annually contributes to various charitable organizations including the YMCA Partners for Youth Program and the law school's Dean's Club.

In 1997, he received the Award of Distinguished Law Graduate from the Seattle University School of Law, and in 1999, he received the Public Service Award from Seattle University for his continued dedication to law-related and community activities. In March 2002, Justice Johnson was recognized by the American Bar Association's Council on Racial and Ethnic Justice for his dedicated service and commitment to equal justice.

A second generation lawyer - his father practiced law for more than 60 years in Pierce County - Johnson opened his own law practice in 1977, representing clients in nearly every area of criminal and civil litigation. He and his wife, Dana, live in Gig Harbor.

He knows many consider his an exalted position, and he said he's grateful for it, but he wants to be approachable and considers himself a "humble servant."

"You have to stay grounded and balanced," he said. "When I'm out and not in my official capacity and people ask me what I do, I say I work for the state," he said.

He said he wants his legacy to be that he worked to help people to better their lives and the judicial process.

"As a legal system, we can't turn our backs on those less fortunate," he said. "We can't exclude anyone."

Summer 2008