Clark County Judge Johnson Returns to Her Dahlias

Nothing lasts forever.

Unless you expire on the bench, everybody returns to civilian life at some point. Tuesday, March 31st will be Judge Barbara Johnson’s final day. She didn’t get to the mandatory retirement age of 75. But other than our somewhat recently retired Judge Bob Harris, I can’t remember another who did. But hey, she did put in 28 years. Almost three decades of public service. Can’t exactly call her a quitter. Achieved some pretty important milestones too.

Daughter of a lawyer and legal secretary, she was admitted to the bar in 1975. A forgotten age, a long time ago, with no cell phones, email or online research. Typewriters, whiteout, carbon paper and phones with rotary dials were the tools of the day. Well okay, maybe not phones with rotary dials, but I bet people still smoked cigarettes in depositions. A time when Clark County had just four Superior Court judges.

In 1987 Johnson was appointed by Governor Booth Gardner and became the first woman judge in Clark County. She joined with five Superior Court Judges at the time, serving with Judges John Skimas, Dean Morgan, Jim Ladley, Tom Lodge and Bob Harris. Stepping onto the bench at the young age of 37. The second youngest judge ever to serve in Clark County. Judge Morgan was supposedly younger when he took his seat (at least according to some exhaustive research on my part). Well, I wasn’t really exhausted, but I was pretty tired at the time.

She was the recipient of the Washington State Judge of the Year Award in 2006 by the Washington State Association for Justice, given to her for the important ruling she made in the Clark County civil case of Magana v. Hyundai where a discovery violation resulted in an $8 million sanction. A decision many attorneys praised as courageous at the time. And one that was upheld by the state Supreme Court. She was also this year’s winner of the Ken Weber Award from the Clark County Bar Association.

But retiring! Say it isn’t so! Our senior judge! Much loved and respected by all in the legal community! Leaving us! For what? More time with friends and family, travel, mid-day fitness center visits, her Dahlia garden, matinees and maybe finally tackling that half triathlon she’s been considering for years. Plus there’s sleeping in and spending more time with Tom, the love of her life.

Okay, I guess that doesn’t sound like such a bad move after all. I suppose she deserves to have some fun. Although she does plan on opening up a mediation practice with Ret. Judge Ladley. So it won’t be all fun and games. I asked Judge Johnson what she thinks she’ll miss when she takes off the black kimono for good. The variety, interacting with the attorneys, the courthouse personnel who work closely with her and the sunset views out the west window of her chambers all made the list. The latter something Judge Gregerson will enjoy when he inherits her space. Hopefully her replacement will be lucky enough to be assigned her longtime JA, Donelle Breeding.

Not too long ago it seemed like Judge Johnson was destined to work for at least another five years. She tells me something dawned on her this last year and she just knew it was time. Maybe it was something her longtime friend and old running buddy Addison Jacobs said to her about her own recent retirement. Your time is your own. Five little words. No more pro se’s, no more plea and sentencing dockets, no more high conflict situations with attorneys heatedly arguing with each other and ignoring the person on the bench. No more sitting for hours on those long afternoon motion dockets in a room with no windows.

Ah, retirement. Time to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Time to read, (and I don’t mean the advance sheets!), relax and work on projects of your choosing. Speaking of reading in retirement, the Judge seems to be getting a little head start. She even asked that I recommend a couple of books to our readers out there. The first was “Boys in the Boat” by Daniel Brown. A book about the UW crew team that grew up during the depression and went on to star in the 1937 Olympics in Germany. The games were awarded to Germany before the Nazis came to power. Hitler used them to showcase his new militaristic Third Reich with Benito Mussolini in attendance.

The other read she endorsed was “Lawyer in Indian Country” by Alvin Ziontz. This memoir tells of the lawyer who played a leading role in the historic Boldt salmon decision affirming tribal sovereignty and the right to a share of migrating salmon. The book follows the newly minted lawyer from Chicago who arrives in Seattle and ends up representing the tribes for over 30 years.

I asked for any parting words she wanted to pass on as she leaves. She thought about it for a moment, then reflected upon what a wonderful opportunity she was given when Governor Gardner appointed her to the bench. She wanted to encourage other people, especially women attorneys, to consider a judicial career. It can be a very rewarding experience. And Clark County is such a great place to practice law.

Well, it will still be a great place to practice law after Judge Johnson steps down. But maybe just a little less great.

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