Alabama Law Honors the Life and Legacy of Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr.

January 25, 2019

Legal scholars, judges, and former law clerks gathered at the School of Law on Friday to reflect on the life and legacy of Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr.

The Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. Centennial Symposium and Law Clerks Reunion celebrated Judge Johnson in the centennial year of his birth and focused on his commitment to enforcing the constitutional rights of all citizens. The Law School’s symposium, sponsored by the Alabama Law Review, marked the third day of events honoring Judge Johnson. For two days in Montgomery, lawyers and community leaders ruminated on their time with him and recounted his contributions to the law.

In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Judge Johnson to serve on the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. Just weeks after he arrived in Montgomery, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus, an event that sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

During his tenure, Judge Johnson issued decisions that integrated buses in Montgomery, desegregated schools in Alabama, threw out the poll tax, protected the Freedom Riders, and allowed the Selma to Montgomery March to move forward. He also set standards on voting rights, employment discrimination, affirmative action, and the rights of mental health patients and prison inmates.

“Judge Johnson was a courageous defender of the Constitution, of the rule of law – sometimes against powerful and violent forces of resistance,” said Dean Mark E. Brandon during his welcoming remarks. “His jurisprudential record was consistently underwritten by a commitment to the values of equal justice and human dignity.”

The Honorable Guido Calabresi, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, delivered the inaugural Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. lecture about the role of a judge.

“While some things about being a judge remain unchanged – independence, impartiality, and all of those things – what a judge’s job is must be determined by the situation that the judge is in at the time, by the nature of the other institutions that are making law at that time, and it is foolish to act as if there is one view of what judges should do and that judges should do it regardless of where they are and when,” Judge Calabresi said.

He noted that some judges settle disputes, while others view themselves as knowing what is right. In Calabresi’s view, judges in the United States are very much a part of various law-making institutions and have a role in making law.

“The most important thing we can do as judges – recognizing the flaws and limits of each of the other institutions and recognizing our own flaws and limits – is talk, is converse, is to go back and forth with these institutions.”