Born in the hill country of Winston County, Alabama, Johnson came to nationwide prominence as one of the most effective and progressive federal judges in the 1960s and 1970s. As the son of the only Republican member of the Alabama Legislature, he knew from an early age that it took strength and self-confidence to espouse unpopular views. He graduated from the University of Alabama Law School, served in the U.S. Army in World War II, and joined a small general law practice in northern Alabama. In 1953, President Eisenhower appointed Johnson the federal prosecutor in Birmingham, where he successfully prosecuted modern-day slavery charges against white farmers who held African-American workers in involuntary servitude. Two years later, Eisenhower appointed him to become the federal judge in Montgomery, the Alabama state capital. At thirty-six, he was the youngest federal judge in the country. Within six months, he ruled on litigation stemming from the Montgomery bus boycott, issuing the first opinion that extended to public transportation the Brown v. Board of Education rationale that had prohibited racial discrimination in education. Many famous civil rights cases followed, with Johnson ruling on a parade of successful efforts to desegregate public parks, public schools, public facilities, and public employment, including the state troopers, and to expand voting rights. In addition, he issued opinions upholding the right of women to serve on juries and to receive equal treatment in the military.
Although recognized in the national press as a civil rights judge, Johnson also left a profound mark on civil liberties litigation. In 1965, Alabama refused to allow civil rights demonstrators to rally to protest against the state’s interference with the right to vote until Johnson ruled that the massive march could use major portions of the public highways to walk from Selma to Montgomery to petition the state government for redress of grievances. In subsequent years Johnson’s rulings in cases involving speech and association regularly favored freedom of expression. For example, he reinstated a student editor expelled for criticizing the president of a state university, prevented a public high school from firing a teacher for assigning satirical stories, prohibited university officials from canceling anti-war speakers on campus, and overturned a state law requiring journalists to file financial interest statements before covering the legislature.
Johnson’s most important impact on civil liberties appeared not in First Amendment cases, however, but in his rulings affecting institutionalized individuals. In a series of groundbreaking opinions, he ruled that patients committed to state mental institutions have a constitutional right to adequate and effective treatment. ‘‘To deprive any citizen of his or her liberty . . .for. . .therapeutic reasons and then fail to provide adequate treatment violates the very fundamentals of due process,’’ he wrote in Wyatt v. Stickney, and issued orders setting minimum constitutional standards for the care of the involuntarily confined mentally ill and mentally retarded. In related litigation, he overturned the Alabama civil commitment statute.
In addition, extensive hearings on prison conditions led Johnson to conclude that Alabama unconstitutionally confined prisoners in facilities unfit for human habitation where they received no medical care and lived in constant fear of violence. His detailed court orders establishing standards to eliminate the persistent unconstitutional conditions in the prisons and mental institutions were innovative and assuredly controversial. As the first judge to enforce the rights of confined individuals by structural injunctions, remedial orders requiring thoroughgoing overhauls of entire state institutional systems, Johnson’s precedents had influence on courts and legislatures around the nation. His rulings inspired Congress to authorize the U.S. Department of Justice to sue on behalf of institutionalized persons anywhere in the nation to remedy a pattern of constitutional violations.
Although criticized vituperatively in Alabama and threatened with death so frequently that federal marshals provided around-the-clock protection from 1961–1975, Johnson ultimately received both local and national acclaim as a courageous and fair judge. In 1979, President Carter appointed Johnson to the federal appellate court where he displayed his continued concern with civil liberties. He overturned the Alabama statutes authorizing voluntary prayer in public schools. He wrote the first opinion asserting that undocumented children have the constitutional right to a free public education. His opinion in Hardwick v. Bowers emphasized autonomy and privacy rights in striking down the Georgia sodomy statute; it was reversed by the Supreme Court in 1986 but was ultimately approved seventeen years later by the Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas.
Johnson reduced his judicial workload in 1991, when he took senior status as a judge. He died in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1999.
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited