Down in the old lumber city of Lake Charles, La., three sisters are sitting around a dining room table, remembering their childhood friend Normalie Holloway Johnson. "We used to play hopscotch and ring-around-the-roses," says 66-year-old Mae Ruth Johnson. But mainly "we just talked. That was the big thing—talking." Nobody out-talked Norma. "She was never short for words," recalls Rosa Bea Lewis, 70. Pipes in Roy Lee McKinley, 64: "It was something about that voice. You know how someone has a voice that commands other people to listen."
And that's exactly what people are doing. Now the chief U.S. district judge in Washington, D.C., Johnson, 66, is the judicial overseer of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation of President Clinton's relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Under pressure from Johnson to quickly resolve when and how the President would testify, the White House and Starr camps decided late last month that Clinton will appear before the grand jury by videotape on Aug. 17, making him the first President ever to serve as a witness in a case in which he is also a target. Doubtless he will be grilled on whether he and Lewinsky (who has received immunity for her testimony) had an affair and whether he coached her to lie about it under oath. That the President finds himself in this predicament is due largely to a series of characteristically swift, tough decisions by Johnson—a Baptist and registered Democrat and the capital's first female chief federal district judge.
"Her strong rulings have frightened the White House into giving testimony," says Paul Rothstein, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. In May, Johnson squelched special privilege claims that would have prevented testimony by White House lawyers and Secret Service agents assigned to the President. She also rejected Clinton's request that he be allowed to delay his testimony until September. "She believes the wheels of justice have to move quickly," says George Washington University law professor Stephen Saltzburg, "and that no one should be able to frustrate that process. Not even a President."
Fiercely private—she will not speak to the press—Johnson is no stranger to high-profile cases. In 1984 she gave EPA official Rita Lavelle six months in jail for lying to Congress. In 1991 she suppressed the release of audiotapes of the Challenger astronauts' final seconds to protect their families' privacy. And two years ago, Johnson gave Illinois Rep. Dan Rostenkowski 17 months for mail fraud.
Her sometimes flinty behavior has not gone unnoticed. In 1996 an appeals court threw out a conviction in a case Johnson had heard, finding that she "frequently berated, interrupted and spoke negatively to the defendant's attorney." An ex-English teacher, Johnson can also be schoolmarmish. Superior Court Chief Judge Eugene Hamilton laughs when he recalls how she chastised a lawyer with unruly hair. "She brought him to her chambers," he says, "and gave him a comb." Adds a court insider: "She is equally imperious with colleagues. She's not first among equals; she's the queen."
She is less intimidating away from the bench. "She's given me the money to buy my books every semester," says Karen Stephenson, 48, a courthouse secretary and single mother working on her college degree. Johnson is also co-founder of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), a group that provides legal help for abused children. Married 34 years to retired judge Julius Johnson, in his 60s, she has no children of her own, but has sent four of her brother's to college.
Johnson often goes home to Lake Charles, where she was born to Henry Holloway, a cook, and his wife, Beatrice. As a young girl, she worked part-time serving ice-cream sodas at Pryce's Pharmacy, running the fountain much as she does her courtroom. "If she was crossed, she'd let you know," says owner Frank Pryce, 68. At 14 she moved to Washington to care for an aging aunt and attended all-black Dunbar High School. After graduating magna cum laude from Miners Teachers College in 1955, Johnson went nights to Georgetown University law school while teaching high school, earning her degree in 1962. She wed Julius Johnson in 1964; they share a spacious townhouse, and a love of Shakespeare, opera and jitterbugging. Says Hamilton: "He's very, very proud of her."
In 1970, President Nixon made Johnson a superior court judge; President Carter named her a U.S. district judge a decade later. Throughout her tenure she has reserved her harshest words for those who violated public trust. "You have stained...the high position you held," she told Rostenkowski, once among the most powerful Democrats in Congress. Says D.C. lawyer Keith Watters: "I chuckle when people call her a Democratic appointee. That means absolutely nothing. She calls them as she sees them."
Rose-Ellen O'Connor in Washington and Michelle McCalope in Lake Charles
On Newsstands Now
- Amy Robach: 'I'm Lucky to Be Alive'
- Paul Walker: Inside His Tragic Death
- Julia Roberts: Choosing Family Over Hollywood
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine