Vermont Bar Journal
Summer 2007 - #3.
An Interview with Justice Denise Johnson
THE VERMONT BAR JOURNAL SUMMER 2007
An Interview with Justice Denise Johnsonby Charity R. Clark, Esq.
On December 3, 1990, Denise Johnson made history by becoming the first woman to serve on the Vermont Supreme Court. In the nearly seventeen years since then, Justice Johnson has not only served with distinction; she has been a leader to many Vermont women attorneys who have come of age during her tenure. As one such Vermonter, I sat down with Justice Johnson in her office overlooking the State House this April to discuss her career in the law. In our conversation, Justice Johnson reflected on her path to the Supreme Court and spoke candidly about her experiences on the bench over the past seventeen years. Much has changed since Justice Johnson's swearing-in ceremony. Throughout these changes, Justice Johnson has maintained her fundamental curiosity of the law, commitment to equality, and love of Vermont.Ms. Clark: How did you come to Vermont?
Justice Johnson: Oh gosh, we could spend an hour on that! I guess the short answer is that my husband and I were in New Haven, Connecticut, and his parents had a place up here in southern Vermont. So, we used to come as often as we could. Then, we came up one summer and stayed for a whole month. During the month we decided that this was it, we were moving, so we got jobs here and we moved.
Ms. Clark: You were already a lawyer then?
Justice Johnson: I was a legal services lawyer in New Haven.
Ms. Clark: What about Vermont called you here?
Justice Johnson: Well, we just spent an awful lot of time here, and then I think we realized that this is where our hearts were. We loved it here and we didn't much like New Haven. We decided we wanted a different lifestyle. It was just basically love of Vermont and the outdoors; and we were here in winter, summer, and every time we went back to New Haven we were like this [Justice Johnson makes a sad face] and then on a Friday night on the way here, we were like this [Justice Johnson makes a happy face].
Ms. Clark: When you were a girl what did you want to be when you grew up?
Justice Johnson: I wanted to be in business. I wanted to be the President of a big corporation.
Ms. Clark: Where do you think that came from?
Justice Johnson: Movies. I was a big fan of Rosalind Russell and all these actresses from the thirties and forties and I used to watch those movies growing up in the fifties and they were my role models. In Hollywood, they were only allowed to run cosmetics companies. But they were women in powerful positions and that's what came through to me. But I came of age in the sixties, and things changed a little. I wanted to do something I thought was relevant. After I graduated from college I was working at the Yale Law School, and also I was married at that time to another person who was a legal services lawyer. So, I spent my time around legal services lawyers and I really thought that that was the way to do something useful in life. So, I went to law school really to be a legal services lawyer. That was my goal. If I was going to practice law, I wanted to represent people who couldn't get other lawyers to represent them, and who needed a voice.
Ms. Clark: On some level do you feel that that interest has carried over throughout your career?
Justice Johnson: I spent several years as a legal services lawyer and I think that is just one of the things that has formed my world view. When you see people struggling to make it every day of their lives and you're a person who's just holding a wolf from the door, you don't really forget that. I still work on issues--access to justice for poor people--and those are issues that have certainly defined my life. In fact, except for a couple of years in private practice, I've been on the public side of the law.
Ms. Clark: Did you have a particular teacher who influenced you and if so, how?
Justice Johnson: I don't think of a particular teacher. In law school, I tried to do as much clinical work as I could, and I did a whole semester of clinical work working for a leading civil rights firm in New Haven. Some of those people were role models for me in terms of what lawyers were like and what they should do.
Ms. Clark: Once you were in practice, was there a particular client or mentor who might have influenced you in one way or another?
Justice Johnson: I had a couple of very good role models when I was in
An Interview with Justice Denise Johnson practice. Frank Dineen, who was an incredible legal services lawyer, was my role model when I was in legal services myself. Frank was recently honored by New Haven Legal Assistance. He teaches part-time at Yale Law and still works at New Haven Legal Assistance. He really gave me my basic education in how to be a lawyer. I think people in practice were much more influential to me. And clients. What you learn from clients is how they make their way in the world every day, which is difficult.
Ms. Clark: Have you had a woman mentor? Do you believe that having a woman mentor was important when you were learning?
Justice Johnson: I did have one. Again it was another lawyer in the office, a more senior lawyer in the office. She only worked part-time for us, but she was very well-known and published in her field. It was good to have her as a mentor, but my mentors were mostly male. As you know, when I moved into the profession, it was mostly male, which seems to be steadily changing. Although the year I was hired there were five lawyers hired from New Haven and three of us were women. When you work in legal services everything is a little bit turned upside down. It's a little bit unlike the real world in that sense and there are more women there and things are done very collectively.
Ms. Clark: Justice O'Connor was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981. How did her appointment change your view of the law or change your perception of the future of the profession?
Justice Johnson: I was delighted to see a woman appointed to the Court. I was a little nervous that she was a Reagan appointee, and that she was appointed because she was such a conservative person and was a friend of Rehnquist, and that is how she got the nod. I think she really distinguished herself on the bench and she's done a lot. She was a great role model I think for everybody.
Ms. Clark: Once she was appointed did you ever imagine, "Maybe someday I'm going to be a justice on a supreme court."
Justice Johnson: Oh, that was already in my mind. I was going to be a judge. I don't think I was thinking about the Supreme Court. I only went to the AG's office in 1980, but over my tenure there I was...