Norma Holloway Johnson, a former chief judge of the federal court in Washington who presided over the grand jury investigation of President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, died Sept. 18 at her brother’s home in Lake Charles, La., after a stroke. She was 79.
The death was announced by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, to which President Jimmy Carter appointed her in 1980. She retired from the federal bench in 2003.
Johnson, who became the court’s first black female chief judge, served more than two decades on the federal bench and oversaw dozens of high-profile cases. Known as a no-nonsense jurist, she did not hesitate to lecture defendants about their conduct or hector lawyers who seemed ill-prepared for court.
In sentencing former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., to 17 months in prison for mail fraud, she told the once-powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee in 1996 that “you capriciously pursued a course of personal gain for you, your family and your friends. You have stained them, as well as yourself.”
As chief judge from 1997 to 2001, Johnson oversaw legal issues emanating from grand jury investigations. One of her most demanding assignments came when independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr began investigating Clinton’s relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
In 1998, as Starr was attempting to use a grand jury to gather evidence against the president, Johnson ruled that Clinton could not assert a privilege that would have blocked the independent counsel from questioning White House aides. That decision and others permitted Starr to move ahead with his obstruction-of-justice inquiry of the president.
“She was very conscientious as chief judge to make sure the independent counsel issues were promptly decided and fairly decided,” said Royce C. Lamberth, chief judge of the District of Columbia’s federal court and a former colleague of Johnson’s. “She got high marks from both sides for how she handled the legal issues presenting the investigation. You need a firm hand on the tiller in that case, and she was it.”
Born on July 28, 1932, in Lake Charles, Normalie Holloway and her younger brother grew up poor in a wood-frame house without indoor plumbing. Her mother, Beatrice, a stern woman who pushed her children to excel, kicked her husband out because he would not work.
“He didn’t meet her expectations,” Lionel Holloway, Judge Johnson’s brother, said in an interview.
As a 12-year-old, Johnson took a job as a soda shop clerk for $9 a week to help her family make ends meet. Worried that her daughter would not get the education she needed in Lake Charles, Johnson’s mother sent her to live with an aunt in Washington.
A 1950 graduate of Dunbar High School, she earned a bachelor’s degree from the District of Columbia Teachers College in 1955. It was about this time that she began thinking about becoming a lawyer, Johnson’s brother said. “She felt she had a higher calling,” he said.
While teaching junior high school, she attended Georgetown University’s law school, graduating in 1962. Two years later, she married Julius A. Johnson, who went on to become a federal administrative law judge. They did not have any children and, after her husband died last year, Johnson moved from Washington to Lake Charles to live with her brother, who is her only immediate survivor.
After her graduation from Georgetown, Johnson was a civil trial lawyer for the Justice Department and then joined the District of Columbia’s corporation counsel’s office, where she became chief of the juvenile division.
In 1970, she was one of two women appointed as judges to the newly formed D.C. Superior Court and a decade later was tapped by Carter to join the federal bench.
As a judge, she quickly gained a reputation for being tough on lawyers. In 1996, an appeals court overturned a woman’s conviction for insurance fraud, in part because of Johnson’s “hostility” toward the defendant’s attorney. The court found that Johnson “frequently berated, interrupted and otherwise spoke negatively” to the attorney.
To prepare young prosecutors for the federal courtroom, the U.S. attorney’s office held training sessions in which supervisors set the bar at Johnson’s strict standards.
“If you could live up to her expectations, you could meet anyone else’s,” said Matt Olsen, a former federal prosecutor who clerked for Johnson from 1988 to 1990 and is now the director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
Once she took off the robe, however, Johnson had a softer side that few lawyers got a chance to see, according to some who worked with her. She was kind to staffers, clerks, and courthouse custodians and cafeteria workers, and offered motherly advice to their children, encouraging them to work hard for their dreams.