WWNO skyline header graphic
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Local Newscast
Hear the latest from the WWNO/WRKF Newsroom.

This 'Bad Child' Became A Judge With A Passion For Justice

Cheryl Gerber

If there’s one person in New Orleans – in the world of criminal justice – that you really ought to meet, it’s this guy.

“I am Calvin Johnson. I am 70 and nine months old. I’m a retired judge.”

“I am Commissioner of Criminal Justice for the City of New Orleans. 

“ I direct the office of Criminal Justice Coordination which includes the system parts.  It includes people on it who come from police, from sheriff, from DA, from Public Defender, from the community. 

“The justice system has had to change, and it is changing, how it thinks about jails, how it thinks about corrections, how it thinks about the criminal justice system.”

Judge Calvin Johnson has a reputation for being an extraordinarily pleasant guy. Also for challenging the system to do better. Iconoclasts like Johnson don’t always end up in charge and sometimes, even he can’t believe his current job exists.  

“Interesting, this life, isn’t it? Don’t you find it just fascinating?” Johnson asks me as we leave a Criminal Justice Coordination meeting.

“I do.  How do you feel right now?”

“Oh well, you know, again, being a guy who’s been around this game for as long as I’ve been in the game,” begins Johnson, “and to be in a room with everybody at the table – that is all the pieces, parts of the system talking about an issue, that’s phenomenal, for a town that never did that kind of stuff before.”

Johnson was the first elected African American Judge in the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. He was also the first African American Chief Judge of Criminal Court, the first Louisiana judge to have a mental health court, andone of the first judges to implement drug court. But it was in the chaos following Hurricane Katrina that his lifelong determination to uphold the constitutional rights of poor people was put to the test.

“Katrina pulled back a curtain on what was this decrepit, corrupt, inadequate, underfunded, overworked, chaotic, indifferent criminal justice system,” says Pam Metzger, who was a Tulane law professor at the time. Metger says after Katrina, every step of the justice system was in shambles– from police contact, to courts, even the evidence room.

“In fact, there were bags of cocaine floating around in the same water where the cadavers were.”

Into the chaos steps chief judge, Calvin Johnson, who takes it upon himself to make sure that the justice system functions according to the constitution. First step: find the 8,000 men, women, and teenagers who’d been stranded in floodwaters at the New Orleans jail, and eventually bused all over the state.  There was no way for jailers to know who was who, so everyone – from people awaiting death sentences hearings to people charged with panhandling – were simply kept behind bars.

“The expression was: this is Guantanamo on the Mississippi,” Metzger, who headed Tulane’s law clinic at the time, says. Johnson appointed Tulane’s law clinic, along with Loyola’s law clinic, to represent every single one of those 8,000 people -- locked up, without lawyers, and scattered across the state. 

“Katrina really challenged all of us to step up and show what you believed justice meant,” recalls Metzger. “And I never saw anyone who put his boots on the ground and his heart on his sleeve more than Calvin did.  Judge Johnson was in every way committed to doing anything and everything he could – not simply to right the wrongs that had been done to all of those people sitting in jail, but to make sure something good came out of it.”

Johnson appointed a new board of public defenders who eventually transformed the public defenders office from a group of part-time lawyers with overwhelming caseloads, to today’s office of 50 full-time lawyers and staff. 

“This is a man who went on the radio and said if you need to get your family and loved ones drug abuse treatment or mental health treatment, right now the only way you can probably get it for them is to get them arrested, and isn’t that a shame?” remembers Metzger. “He never stopped believing that the people who were in front of him shared a common humanity. I mean he spoke the truth all the time: in ways that were challenging and unpleasant and important.”

Johnson’s fight against unfairness stretches all the way back to his childhood in Jim Crow Louisiana.

“I grew up in Plaquemine from the late 40’s through the 50’s, through the 60’s,” Johnson tells me. “It was described by Walter Cronkite as a little sleepy town on the river. But it wasn’t that sleepy because there was a lot of stuff going on.” 

Take, for example, the summer of 1961. Calvin Johnson was 14. 

“There was this guy who was a star football player,” says Johnson. “He had a college scholarship to go play college football. He was a big tall, good looking guy. He really was.  He was prosecuted for aggravated rape of a white woman, who was his girlfriend, but he was prosecuted for rape.”

At the time, rape charges were a typical response to interracial relationships. Still, this was a big case in Plaquemine. The courthouse was packed. Black people sat in the balcony.

“I was upstairs watching this trial, and I was there for the entirety of it, and saw him get convicted. And knowing that was just such a farce in terms of justice, that was part of the reason that I’ve always been in criminal law.”

Two years later, in the summer of 1963, Calvin Johnson was 16 and participating in demonstrations. During one, about school integration, he was arrested. And another night, he was at a church planning a demonstration.

“The Klan came in,” says Johnson, “and ran us all out of the church. I was running through a barbed wire fence and you can barely see it now but this is where my arm was hooked in the barbed wire, and I had to jerk it off to keep from getting run over by a horse.”

Johnson’s father, William McKinley Johnson, was president of the Voters League and actively participated in the civil rights movement. He was a plaintiff in a suit brought by Thurgood Marshall, who went on to become a Supreme Court Justice. This deeply influenced young Calvin Johnson, and perhaps explains Johnson’s unusual behavior in his courtroom. Johnson often played speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and quoted rap lyrics to young men in drug court.

Councilmember Jason Williams says, as a young defense attorney, this was amazing to watch.

“You’ve got rows of inmates in orange, District Attorneys, families, private defense lawyers, public defenders all waiting to start court,” recalls Williams, “but they can’t start before he’s read poetry, and one of his go-to poets was Langston Hughes.”

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am 
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

“He wasn’t rushing,” recalls Williams. “He was really delivering it because he wanted people to hear it.”

“Some of the inmates, some of the lawyers, looked as though they had never heard Langston Hughes. Some of them looked as though they had never heard poetry.

“It was as if Calvin was injecting humanity back into this process,” says Williams. In a courtroom, case number whatever gets called, state versus this person. All the humanity gets pulled out of that. And their eyes looked as though someone was talking to them and someone was trying to reach them, and he did reach them. And he did it on a regular basis. This was not the mood struck him one Thursday; this was a daily occurrence.  And it gets in you. Starting your day in Section E of Criminal District Court at Tulane and Broad is going to be different than any other courtroom in this country.”

Johnson says judging is about being present with people. This, he says, is the way to change behavior.

Credit Cheryl Gerber
Calvin Johnson directs the office of Criminal Justice Coordination for the City of New Orleans.

“You have to recognize, that these are individuals,” says Johnson. “And so many of us have done things that we regret. So many of us have made mistakes, and one should not be penalized ‘til death do them part for a mistake.

Johnson knows this personally and deeply.  When he was about 13…

“I got in a fight with my own brother who was teasing me about my glasses -- I hit him in the head with a brick. True story. Hit him in the head with a brick. He was in a coma.”   

Johnson asks: what should have happened to that child? 

He says, in today’s system, “that child would get prosecuted. That child would have been in a juvenile system. I mean, that’s aggravated battery. Arguably, attempted murder.” 

But no one called the police on this child. Or decided he was dangerous. He wasn’t expelled or arrested. Everyone makes mistakes, Johnson says. Looking back, he sees many he committed in the name of justice. 

“When I started in ’90,” says Johnson, “we had a very narrowly sculpted notion – and I had a very narrowly sculpted notion -- of what judging was. What the criminal justice system was, what I was supposed to do as a judge. Well, fast forward to 2017, we know that, with all respect Calvin, what happened from 1980 forward, was we went from being just bad in terms of corrections and in terms of incarceration to absolutely terrible.” 

In fact, part of Johnson’s work now is undoing the work of his earlier self, when he used to see a defendant before him and think:

“Well he didn’t do this, but he did something. I know he did something else, so even though you may be wrong for you to be punished for the thing you are accused of, the punishment is just, because of these other things you’ve done.  And I have seen that thinking play out with other system players And that kind of thinking, that’s all a part of how we have to rethink how we do criminal justice.”

“So how do you get system players to change that stance?” I ask.

“Inch by inch.  It’s not an easy task.” 

“Do you feel like you almost have to go person by person and draw on your personal relationships?”

“Sure! Absolutely. I’m the old guy, and they all kinda respect the old guy.” 

When he was a younger, Johnson took advice from an older guy, his father.  

“One day he’s in my court, watching court unfold,” Johnson recalls. “And I am revoking a kid’s probation. I’m going through as judges do: I told you to do this, and you didn’t do it, and I’m going to revoke your probation, and you’re going to do these years in jail, yadda, yadda.  And I’m full of myself and saying all of that as judges could do it.  

“And so I get off the bench and I go in my office. Well my dad comes in behind me.  And I’m still full of myself, and my daddy says: ‘but he’s not the problem.’ 

“And I said, ‘What do you mean he ain’t the problem?’  

“And he says, ‘No. You’re the problem. You’re the problem.  You need to do more!’ 

“So here I am.”

Stay Connected
Eve Abrams first fell in love with stories listening to her grandmother tell them; it’s been an addiction ever since.