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Johnson/TWP file
Judge Norma Holloway Johnson in 1980.
(By Tom Allen-The Washington Post)

Johnson Strict With Officials and About Her Privacy

By Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 20, 1998; Page A20

Lawyers who practice before U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson weren't particularly surprised when William H. Ginsburg, the lawyer for former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky, left a closed hearing looking somewhat shaken after his encounter with the notoriously stern judge.

"I can only imagine why Mr. Ginsburg came out of court with his tail between his legs," said attorney G. Allen Dale, speculating that Johnson took the voluble Ginsburg to task for his extensive public comments. "I'm sure she let him have it in no uncertain terms."

Ginsburg certainly wouldn't be the first to encounter the wrath of Johnson, who as the chief of the federal District Court here oversees the grand jury process and is now weighing a raft of motions relating to the investigation by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

In the next few weeks, Johnson is expected to rule on Ginsburg's effort to enforce an agreement giving his client immunity from prosecution; Clinton lawyer David Kendall's bid to sanction Starr's office for allegedly illegal leaks to the press; Starr's effort to secure testimony from Francis Carter, Lewinsky's first lawyer; and a dispute between Starr and the White House over executive privilege and the scope of permissible questioning of aides such as deputy counsel Bruce Lindsey.

In her nearly 18 years on the bench, Johnson – a registered Democrat who was appointed by President Jimmy Carter – has presided over some high-profile cases that may offer clues about how she would view the allegations against President Clinton. In dealing with misconduct by government officials and others in positions of power, Johnson has not spared them the lecturing tone that lawyers say she favors with more ordinary defendants.

Sentencing former Reagan administration Environmental Protection Agency official Rita M. Lavelle to six months in prison for lying to Congress in 1984, Johnson said, "You violated the public trust and your perjury offends and strikes at the very core of the trust . . . conferred to you."

Johnson was similarly tough on Illinois Democrat Dan Rostenkowski when she sentenced the former House Ways and Means Committee chairman to 17 months in prison for mail fraud. "The guilty pleas don't reflect the breadth of your crimes," she told Rostenkowski. "In your important position, you capriciously pursued a course of personal gain for you, your family and your friends. You have stained them, as well as yourself, and the high position you held."

She is among the least well-known judges on the court here, a woman with a penchant for privacy; she does not provide her age (65) in the directory of federal judges and, until she became chief judge last June, was the only District Court judge to keep the doors to her chambers locked. A secretary who answered the telephone there did not skip a beat before denying an interview request – "She won't grant it," she said – and declined to provide a list of Johnson's current or former law clerks. "We can't release that information." Yesterday, she denied a request from news organizations, including The Washington Post, to open some of the Starr proceedings to the press – and placed her order explaining the denial under seal.

Johnson brings to the Clinton investigation a reputation as a harsh sentencer who is inclined to rule for the government, and a pedantic judge who can be prickly with lawyers who run afoul of her views of courtroom decorum.

"She is very no-nonsense and big on protocol," said former federal prosecutor Charles H. Roistacher, who represented former representative Enid Greene Waldholtz (R-Utah). He praised Johnson's handling of the case against Joseph Waldholtz, who pleaded guilty to writing worthless checks and lying on election forms about the source of $1.8 million pumped into his wife's campaign. "You can't fool around in her courtroom."

In sentencing Waldholtz, Johnson tacked four months to the maximum 33 months he originally faced, citing his heroin addiction, bounced checks and stolen credit cards from family and friends while awaiting sentencing. "No sentence is sufficient to atone for your crimes," she told him.

In one case, Johnson's tough sentence was overturned by the Supreme Court. Former Agency for International Development official William J. Burns pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $1.2 million from AID, a crime that carried a maximum of three years under the federal sentencing guidelines. Johnson, without notice to the defense or prosecution, increased that to five years, telling Burns, "You may have thought of it as some faceless government, but you were stealing from the taxpayers of the United States."

A Lake Charles, La., native whose given name is "Normalie," Johnson often points to her impoverished upbringing in telling defendants they should improve themselves. She was a schoolteacher who worked her way through night law school at Georgetown, and lawyers who describe her courtroom manner invariably use the word "schoolmarmish."

"She will treat defendants – and sometimes lawyers – like a third-grade student in front of an old schoolmarm who believed in [the maxim of] sparing the rod and spoiling the child," said one lawyer who has appeared frequently before her. Indeed, speaking to a lawyers' group in 1996, Johnson said that everything they needed to know to practice in her court they "learned in kindergarten."

There are mixed reviews of Johnson's judicial intellect. When she was nominated to the federal court in 1980, after serving for 10 years as a D.C. Superior Court judge, the American Bar Association panel that evaluates judicial nominees rated Johnson "qualified," the lowest acceptable rating. "If you were to canvass 100 litigators in this district, a substantial number of them would say she's just not as sharp as many of her colleagues on the bench," said one veteran lawyer.

But a 1993 Legal Times analysis of how often district judges here were overruled by the appeals court found Johnson in the center, with a reversal rate of 19 percent, compared with the average of 17 percent. Keith Watters, a former president of the predominantly black National Bar Association, attributed some of the criticism of Johnson, who is African American, to a double standard. "I couldn't think of a better judge to be handling this as chief," he said. "She's fair, she's impartial and she's going to call them as she sees them."

Said former U.S. attorney Joseph E. diGenova: "She's certainly been up to every task I've ever seen her involved in in federal court. She goes right to the nut of something."

Some lawyers see Johnson as a conscientious jurist who may be quicker to rule on the critical matters pending before her than was her predecessor as chief judge, John Garrett Penn. "She has a good sense of what's important and what's not important and when she has something before her that's important she is able to treat it that way and deal with it promptly," said John Bates, a former deputy in Starr's office who had extensive experience before Johnson as head of the civil division in the U.S. Attorney's Office here.

A sense of Johnson's sometimes difficult dealings with the lawyers who appear before her comes from two appeals court cases involving her actions.

In one 1993 case, she took the unusual step of holding a federal public defender, James Holloway, in contempt of court and barred him from appearing in her courtroom for, as Johnson saw it, continuing to pose questions that she had ruled impermissible.

The majority of the appeals court panel upheld the contempt citation. But in a dissent, Judge Abner J. Mikva said Johnson's order to Holloway was ambiguous and that in any case she overreacted, in part because of lingering friction with Holloway from an earlier trial. "Judge Johnson's impatience with all the defense attorneys, but particularly Mr. Holloway, is clear from the record," Mikva wrote. "While Judge Johnson's irritability may be understandable given this long and arduous trial, this court should not excuse the unwarranted consequences of her indiscretion."

In a 1996 case, the appeals court overturned a woman's conviction for insurance fraud in part because of what it said was Johnson's "hostility" toward the defense lawyer, former D.C. Bar president Robert L. Weinberg. Johnson, the court said, "frequently berated, interrupted and otherwise spoke negatively to" Weinberg. During the questioning of two critical witnesses, the court said, she made about 65 negative comments to Weinberg, of which 55 were made in the presence of the jury.

"No, no, no. Don't you dare characterize this witness's testimony. Don't you dare," Johnson said at one point in the case. "No one knows what you're talking about except you," she said at another.

In overturning the conviction, the appeals court said Johnson's "near-constant criticism of the defendant's counsel," along with animosity toward the defendant, created "a serious doubt as to whether this defendant received a fair trial." It took the further step of ordering that a new trial be held before a different judge.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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