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Outstanding Appeals Court Jurist

Former student leader Earl Johnson Jr. (WCAS55, GL61) has made significant contributions from the bench in California.

It has been more than 50 years since Earl Johnson Jr. (WCAS55, GL61) was an undergraduate at Northwestern, but he still recognizes the impact those years had on the course of his career. Johnson became interested in law while serving as Student Governing Board president in 1954–55.

"I decided I wanted to be a lawyer because I wanted to get involved with the government in a meaningful way," Johnson says.

Today Johnson is an associate justice in the 2nd Appellate District of the California Courts of Appeal. Last May, Johnson received the Outstanding Jurist Award from the Los Angeles County Bar Association.

Since Johnson was appointed to the court in 1982, he has written more than 600 published opinions. These include Del Monte v. Deukmejian, in which he declared unconstitutional a provision denying benefits to veterans residing in California who did not live there when they entered the military. Because of the court's decision, hundreds of thousands of California veterans became eligible for state-funded benefits such as loans for homes and education.

In another opinion, Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services v. Superior Court, Johnson declared that trial courts are authorized to provide independent counsel for children in cases where the government seeks to take them away from their parents.

Before becoming a judge, Johnson was a federal prosecutor for the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section of the U.S. Department of Justice. He later served as the second director of the Legal Services Program of the Office of Economic Opportunity, which increased the amount of legal aid available to low-income people by eight-fold. In just two years, under his leadership the program grew to almost 2,000 lawyers serving in 800 local offices in 300 communities. He then became a law professor at the University of Southern California.

Several years later Johnson decided he wanted to try a different aspect of law. After being appointed to the California Court of Appeal by Gov. Jerry Brown in 1982, Johnson continued to promote equal access to justice and legal services for the poor. He chaired the committee that created the California Commission on Access to Justice in 1997, was the founding president of the National Equal Justice Library — now housed at Georgetown Law School — and played a leading role in drafting the resolution and report advocating a guaranteed right to counsel for low-income people in civil cases, which was unanimously adopted as official policy of the American Bar Association in 2006.

Even as an undergraduate, Johnson showed an interest in promoting equality for all.

When Johnson was elected in 1954, the campus stood divided on a controversial proposal to require fraternities and sororities to either remove discriminatory clauses in their charter or lobby their national organization to allow them to do so. The referendum offered two alternative proposals that both required the removal of clauses barring racial, ethnic or religious minorities. One alternative required progress by 1960, while the other required proof of a good faith effort by that point.

The second version passed narrowly. This initiative helped start the momentum that a few years later resulted in the elimination of discrimination clauses from the national charters of most fraternities and sororities.

"At the time, Northwestern had probably the highest percentage of Greek membership in the Big Ten and one of the highest in the nation among major universities," Johnson says. "So it was both surprising and meaningful that this campus was among the first to take a stand."

On another front, Johnson testified at the state capitol against the Broyles Bills, a set of proposed laws that would have required all professors at Illinois colleges and universities to identify subversives within their departments. In the end, the Broyles Bills failed to pass.

Born in Watertown, S.D., Johnson, who attended the University on a Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship, served as a naval officer for three years after graduation. He then earned his law degree from the University of Chicago before returning to Northwestern to receive his master's in criminal law as a Ford Foundation Fellow.

His Northwestern leadership experience and legal studies set the foundation for a career as a pioneering poverty lawyer and "outstanding" jurist.

"He has really changed the legal landscape," says Johnson's longtime friend, Gerald Caplan (WCAS59, G60), a University of the Pacific law professor. "Without him, there would be thousands of people without legal services."

— Anne Martin (J09)

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Earl Johnson Jr. (WCAS55, GL61)Photo by Ann Johansson