A high school career day determined the path Judge Charles V. Johnson would take to study law after hearing a local attorney speak. The lawyer’s demeanor influenced him to follow in those footsteps.
After a stint in the army, he attended and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in 1954, followed by the University of Washington School of Law in 1957 – he was the only African American to finish in his class. He practiced law in Seattle from 1958 to 1969.
From 1969 through 1980 he served as a judge in Seattle Municipal Court. While there, his fellow jurists elected him Presiding Judge for three terms. In 1981, he was appointed to King County Superior Court. Likewise, he was appointed Presiding Judge in Superior Court, becoming the first and only African American to hold that position. Duties included directing the business of the courts, supervising 48 judges and seven commissioners, as well as serving as the media spokesperson for the court.
Judge Johnson found an extremely difficult situation in Superior Court as it faced a huge backlog of both civil and criminal cases that cluttered the court system. Judge Johnson successfully eliminated that backlog which had plagued the court for years. His model for reducing the backlog became the template used by the American Judges Association nationally.
As one colleague put it: “Judge Charles V. Johnson gained success the old-fashioned way – he earned it. The strands of hard work, devotion to family and deep religious conviction were woven into a thread that ran through his life.”
He was often described as just and firm, a good listener, formal, dignified and articulate in a quiet way.
The list of organizations he volunteered to help highlight his sense of community as they work to improve the lives of those less fortunate among us. They include the First AME Church, the YMCA Board Member, NAACP National Board, and Chair of the NAACP National Legal Committee. Johnson also served on the boards of the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic, and the Seattle Model Cities Program.
In his efforts to improve the judicial system he served as President of the American Judge’s Association, Board of Directors of the National Center for State Courts, and member of the Gender and Justice Task Force of the State of Washington. Additionally, he served as a member of the Washington State Sentencing Guidelines Commission and the Governor’s Emergency Commission on Prison Overcrowding.
Judge Johnson was the recipient of the Seattle King County Bar Association’s Outstanding Judge Award and the National Center for State Courts Distinguished Service Award, both in 1991. He was also awarded the Municipal League of King County 1994 Public Official of the Year, and the Washington State Bar Association’s 1994 Outstanding Judges Award, also in 1994.
Other notable judicial achievements include serving as president of the American Judges Association, as well as serving on the board of the National Center of State Courts.
In 2008, he was honored by the Seattle University Law School’s Red Mass which “recognizes and celebrates the legal profession’s vital role in promoting justice and peace through its work and academic endeavors.”
Judge Johnson is survived by his wife Lazelle S. Johnson, son Jimm Brown (Ethel), daughters Tracy Jones (Marvin), and Terri L. Hackett, granddaughter Shemille Brown, grandson Wes Brown, two great-grandchildren (Samontae and Alicia), and a host of nieces and nephews.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the Loren Miller Bar Association Foundation which offers scholarships for diverse law school students.
A private family service will be held, followed by a public memorial service at a later date to be determined. Viewing hours will be 12:00 pm – 4:00 pm on Sun., Jan. 10, at Sunset Hills Funeral Home.
- Washington State Trial Lawyers Association Outstanding Judge of the Year in 1997
- Washington State Bar Association Outstanding Judge of the Year in 1994
- Seattle King County Bar Association Outstanding Judge of the Year in 1991
- Outstanding Leadership Award from the American Judge’s Association
- Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Washington School of Law
- He also was a recipient of the Nordstrom Cultural Diversity Community Service Award in 1998
Judge Charles V. Johnson’s Community Involvement: President, NAACP Seattle Chapter; President, NAACP Northwest Regional Chapter; Board Member, NAACP National Board; Board Member, Central Area Motivation Program (CAMP) Board; Board Member Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic; Chairperson, Seattle Model Cities Program; Chairperson, East Madison YMCA; Chairperson, Seattle Metropolitan YMCA Board; and Vice President, YMCA National Council.