By day, Johnson is a records manager in the clerk’s office of the District’s federal court, curating obscure files and trying to avoid paper cuts. In the evening, he drives up the hill — Capitol Hill — to do squats with Ginsburg or take punches from her colleague, Justice Elena Kagan, in the Supreme Court’s ground-floor gym.
The judges, clerks and U.S. marshals who lift and stretch with Johnson may know the law; Johnson, 48, who spent years jumping out of airplanes for the military, knows fitness. But it could be any of a range of professions serving this city’s elite: Johnson is part of the army of Washingtonians in everyday jobs whose lives cross paths with extraordinary power. In his case, that intersection occurs with two of the most influential legal minds in the world.
“Exercise is the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter what size, shape or color you are,” Johnson said in his office cubicle at the federal courthouse on Constitution Avenue, about a half-mile down the hill from the Supreme Court. “A push-up is a push-up, no matter how you look at it.”
Ginsburg and Johnson are an unlikely pair, the world-class lawyer and her physical powerhouse of a trainer. He stands an inch shy of 6 feet, weighs 206 pounds and can pump out 84 push-ups in two minutes. She’s just over 5 feet and just over 100 pounds — and she has passed her own milestone on the green mat.
“When I started, I looked like a survivor of Auschwitz,” Ginsburg said in an interview. “Now I’m up to 20 push-ups.”
And those are old-fashioned, knees-off-the-ground push-ups, her trainer proudly points out.
Discretion is a big part of the unwritten job description for people like Johnson, people who cut hair, cook meals, tailor suits — and keep secrets for those in power. Johnson often knows when his well-known clients are tired or sick — or why they’ve had a rough day on the bench.
In the course of his relationship with Ginsburg, she has written and voted on such major issues of the day as President Obama’s health-care law, a ban on late-term abortion and gender-based employment discrimination.
But Johnson is reluctant to talk about her or betray what she says in the sweaty confines of the gym.
The necessity of exercise, especially for people who sit all day, say, in black robes, created a business opportunity for Johnson that sprang from his day job at the courthouse. But it is Johnson’s style, combining the strictness and professionalism of the military with the sensitivity of a therapist, that has allowed him to gain the trust of more than a half-dozen federal judges and two Supreme Court justices.
Ginsburg began using a personal trainer in 1999, after she was treated for colon cancer and her husband, Martin, who died in 2010, insisted that she hire someone to help her regain her strength. By the justice’s account, she was in bad shape after surgery and radiation.