This week, State Supreme Court Justice Jim Johnson announced his plans to retire on April 30th, citing health concerns. Johnson’s retirement represents a real loss to the people of our state. Johnson may be the only member of the high court who understands that the purpose of the state constitution is to protect the rights of citizens, not to defer to the regulatory encroachments of state agencies.
Although Supreme Court judges are elected in our state, Johnson made it clear he was a judge first and an occasional, reluctant political candidate second (though he succeeded in both 2004 and 2010).
The distinction is important, especially in light of the court’s increasingly political decisions which include the McCleary education funding case and the 2/3 tax limitation case. In the first one, the court issued a line-by-line budget and ordered the legislature to pass it, something the judicial branch is neither authorized nor designed to do. In the second, the court struck down a taxpayer-protection policy the people had enacted five separate times with increasing majority votes.
Judge Jim Johnson (certainly not to be confused with the liberal activist Charles Johnson, who also sits on the court) drew criticism for voting to uphold the state’s traditional marriage law. His sound judicial reasoning indicated that he did not think judges should dictate to the people how the law should change (unlike activist judges), but that important changes should be made either by the legislature or directly by the people—which, on this issue, is exactly what happened.
In his years on the bench, Justice Jim Johnson stood up consistently for property rights and open government. His work centered on respect – respect for the constitution and, by extension, for the people of our state and our ability to govern ourselves.
He was called the court’s conservative, but it’s more accurate to say he had humility as a justice. He did not think the courts can or should try to solve all of society’s problems. He believed the people, working through our representative democracy, can provide the best long-term solutions.
In ancient Rome, to be called “Friend of the People” was one of the most honored titles anyone in public life could earn. That’s not a bad term for Justice Jim Johnson, whose legal knowledge, clear reasoning and natural humility led him to stand up for the rights of ordinary people against those in government who seek to expand their own power.