At the end of this year, Justice Phil Johnson will retire from the Texas Supreme Court after 13 years of distinguished service. His opinions have left an indelible mark on Texas law, but those of us who have been privileged to work with him know that his legacy runs much deeper.
Is our system of partisan judicial elections, Texans have had multiple opportunities to vote for or against Justice Johnson. Many undoubtedly based their votes on whether they and he belonged to the same political party. But I am convinced that no matter your age, race, religion, or political persuasion, after spending a day following Justice Johnson on the job, you’d have proudly voted for him. He is a shining, unwavering example of what we should demand from our public servants.
Long before he was a judge, he served our country as a captain in the U.S. Air Force, flying an F-100 fighter-bomber during the Vietnam War. He was decorated with the Silver Star, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, and the Distinguished Flying Cross—twice.
His enduring devotion to his wife, Carla, was born from tragedy and grief. They met at the ceremony where Justice Johnson was awarded the Silver Star. Carla’s first husband, also an Air Force pilot, was also to receive the Silver Star, but had been killed in action. She was at the ceremony to accept the posthumous decoration on his behalf. And a love story was born.
Justice Johnson attended Texas Tech for both undergraduate studies and law school. After establishing his law practice in Lubbock, he ran for a seat on the Amarillo-based Seventh Court of Appeals, won, and was later elected chief justice of that court. In 2005, Governor Rick Perry appointed him to fill a vacancy on the Texas Supreme Court.
For the past five years, I’ve served alongside Justice Johnson on the Texas Supreme Court. For nearly all that time, I was the Court’s junior justice, which means I had a lot to learn. There was never any better example to follow than Justice Johnson. He sets the bar for his devotion to the Court, his love for our staff, and the fundamental kindness and decency he so freely offers to everyone he meets.
Even at a spry 74 years old, Justice Johnson’s work ethic is unmatched. Our workload is substantial. We hear and decide about the same number of cases every year as the United States Supreme Court, but as elected judges we must also mount statewide political campaigns. While the demands on all of our time is similar, no one is better prepared for oral argument and our court conferences than Justice Johnson. I’m 25 years younger than he is, and I marvel at his bottomless supply of good-natured energy.
Justice Johnson is universally beloved by our Court’s staff, and enjoys particularly fierce loyalty from his former law clerks. It’s no secret why—he embodies the Golden Rule. He knows every law clerk’s name—both his own and the other justices’—even before they walk in for their first day of work. He treats everyone at the Court—from the housekeeping staff to the chief justice himself—with the same gentle, caring respect. He never raises his voice. He never shows anger or frustration. He exemplifies encouragement, optimism, and steady-handedness.
His decency extends even to those who would seek to take his job away. Unaware that Justice Johnson was in earshot, I once made an unflattering remark about his opponent in a particular election. I was immediately embarrassed when I realized he heard me, because I knew it was something he’d never say. I acknowledged my remark was in poor taste, and he was graciously dismissive. A lesser man would have reveled in my criticism of his opponent. Justice Johnson would have none of it.
Since I was young, I’ve held on to a romantic notion that America always calls out the best among us for public service. But the arc of history shows that politics rarely works that way. Even our greatest heroes are often deeply flawed human beings. But sometimes our faith is rewarded. And working alongside Justice Johnson has rekindled my hopeful faith in our system.
Across this great state, in both political parties, there are men and women of the highest character hard at work for the people of Texas. They’re the quiet ones, avoiding the spotlight, focusing on good government rather than self-aggrandizement. For those good folks, and for anyone who aspires to the gold standard of public service, Phil Johnson is a guiding light. And whether you ever voted for him or not, I promise he has made you proud.