Jean Johnson loved being a mom, a friend, a judge; longtime jurist died last week of cancer
Jean Johnson, the judge, was tough. She was courageous. She was fair.
Jean Johnson, the person, was a wonderful mother. She was a dedicated friend. She was an avid pioneer.
That is how the longtime Circuit Court judge is remembered by her colleagues and friends.
Johnson, 66, died Thursday after a lengthy battle with cancer, a fight she kept private from most.
That was how she lived her life, her husband, Greg Johnson, said last week. Not drawing attention to herself, often putting others' needs first.
"If we had a lot of citizens like her, we would be living in a better place," said Teri Sopp, a friend since 1979. "She was a true community servant."
That service began when Johnson was a student at the University of Florida in the 1960s.
At the time, male students had no curfew. But for females, curfew was 10 p.m., something Johnson thought was unfair. Not because of social reasons, her husband said, but because male students had an additional three hours they could use the library, which closed at 1 a.m.
Johnson said when his wife asked the dean about the discrepancy, she was told: "We do it to protect you women. Men are like wolves out there. They will take advantage of the sheep."
Johnson said his wife's response was: "Why don't you lock up the wolves and let the sheep go to the library?"
It took about a year, he said, but the curfew for women was ultimately lifted.
She also was the first female student to be placed on the student conduct committee, her husband said. One of the high-profile cases handled by the committee involved a student who posed in a skimpy bikini on the cover of the student newspaper. The administration wanted to expel the woman for unbecoming conduct.
That infuriated Johnson, her husband said. She ultimately persuaded one of the five faculty members on the panel to vote with the four student members. That was the first time in memory that the committee didn't side with the administration, he said.
Detour before law school
After receiving her bachelor's degree in 1968, both the judge and her husband were admitted to graduate school and law school. Johnson said he got a significant scholarship but his wife got none, despite having a higher LSAT score and grade point average.
When she asked the dean why that happened, her husband said the dean told her female lawyers rarely got scholarships because "All they do is go out and get married, get pregnant and not practice law."
Instead of going to law school at that time, they both received Ford Foundation Fellowships to intern with committees in the Florida Legislature.
Johnson said his wife was assigned to a "little-known guy named Bob Graham," who later became governor and a U.S. senator. After one year, she became his chief legislative assistant on the education committee.
She helped craft significant legislation, including bills that required school systems to set up alternative classrooms for pregnant students and for nonviolent students with disciplinary problems — both of whom were typically expelled during those days.
She also was integral in an early childhood education act, which was the first step to extend preschool, Johnson said.
"Jean helped Bob Graham establish himself as the education governor," Johnson said.
Motherhood and the law
By the time the judge decided to return to the University of Florida to attend law school in the 1980s, her husband was a practicing attorney and they were the parents of three children.
She was determined to not be an absentee mother, Johnson said. She drove to Gainesville every morning, went to school and made it back in time to have dinner with family.
"I don't know if I could have done that," Johnson said.
She went to every soccer game, every wrestling match, every musical event.
"I was the absent person," Johnson said. "She was there all the time."
Her first job out of law school was at her husband's law firm, Rumrell and Johnson, where she stayed for several years.
Then she decided she wanted to be a judge. She was elected to the bench in County Court in 1992, where she started the mediation program, her husband said.
In 1996, she was the first woman to be elected a Circuit Court judge.
Among her most notable rulings was the recent overturning of a 1974 Death Row conviction of a man because his attorney had a relationship with the defendant's sister. The judge also said prosecutors failed to disclose a deal with one of the man's co-defendants who testified against him.
Johnson said his wife was the first Circuit Court judge in Florida to rule that a law firm had actively participated in fraudulent activity in foreclosures.
As a criminal defense attorney, David Robbins lost more cases than he won before the judge. But he had confidence in her prowess from the bench.
"Not only was she extremely intelligent and a very fair judge, she was very, very courageous," Robbins said. "She was not concerned about the politics of any decision she would make."
Robbins said he had "tremendous respect" for her. "She was a marvelous woman and a marvelous judge," he said. "And I will miss her."
Attorney Wayne Hogan served with Johnson on the 4th Circuit Pro Bono Committee that she chaired for at least 20 years.
"She opened up opportunities for lawyers to do pro bono cases for the good of the public," Hogan said. "To take steps to see that people who needed access to justice would have someone speak for them."
The loves of her life
As much as Jean Johnson enjoyed being a judge, it was being a wife, mother and friend that she loved most. Greg Johnson proudly rattled off their children's accomplishments.
Alise Johnson Henry is a senior litigator with a Miami securities firm, has two Presidential Points of Light awards and 3-year-old twin girls.
Rebecca Johnson Weiss is a senior biologist for the Army Corps of Engineers in Portland after being the chief biologist in charge of the Everglades restoration. She's the mother of a 9-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter.
Gregory Johnson Jr. originally planned to be a lawyer. Instead, he is a talented writer who recently got a master's in fine arts in creative writing from The New School in New York.
"Our children's accomplishments are a reflection of her effort and influence more than mine," Johnson said. "… They are all outstanding people in their fields."
He loved the best-friend relationship he had with his wife, one that comes with being together 48 years.
"She was a wife I didn't deserve. I always felt she was so much better than me in many ways," Johnson said.
Sopp said last week the judge "loved to travel, loved a great restaurant. Just truly loved life."
And she was a great friend. "She's very interested in all of her friends' lives. She loves her friends. When they were happy, she was happy."
When the judge was diagnosed two years ago with a rare form of cancer of the endocrine system, the couple didn't share the news, even with their children.
It was a slow-growing cancer, her husband said, and they were optimistic.
That changed in June when his wife broke her femur while rolling over in bed. The cancer had spread to her bones.
Doctors at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa referred her to a facility in the Netherlands, where a treatment used there had an 80 percent success rate. The Johnsons traveled there in September and were planning to return for a second treatment Nov. 25 when the judge began having trouble breathing.
The once slow-moving cancer was in her lungs. Johnson knew his wife couldn't fly but contemplated traveling on the Queen Mary to get her to the next treatment. They had planned to stay overseas until her treatments were complete, he said.
Instead, the cancer turned incredibly aggressive. Within two weeks, the judge went from sitting up and talking to friends to being under heavy sedation.
On Thursday, the family said goodbye as Jean Johnson passed away at the Mayo Clinic after a life of service, but one where she shared few of her accolades.
Years ago, the couple's oldest daughter walked through Reitz Union at the University of Florida where photographs of the school's Hall of Fame honorees are hung.
Next to Steve Spurrier's picture was one of someone she knew well: Her mother.
It was another honor the judge had never shared.
Jean Johnson service
The service for Jean Johnson is noon Jan. 3 at Hardage-Giddens Funeral Home, 4115 Hendricks Ave.
Visitation is 11 a.m., with a reception to follow the service.