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Judge Johnston's Portrait Unveiled

Judge Johnston's Portrait Unveiled

Judge Johnston, center, stands in front of his newly unveiled portrait with the artist, Tom Edgerton, and Mecklenburg County Bar President Heather Culp, who also serves on the NCBA Board of Governors.

Mecklenburg County judges and attorneys gathered last week for the unveiling of a portrait of retired chief resident Superior Court Judge Robert P. Johnston. The event was held on Thursday, July 13, at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse.

Charlotte attorneys John Rudisill and Jameson Wells co-chaired the effort to commission the portrait, which was painted by Tom Edgerton. Also serving on the Robert Johnston Portrait Committee were Jonathan E. Buchan Jr., John Buric, Bill Claytor, Ray Farris, John Randall Groves Jr., Nancy Norelli, Raymond E. Owens Jr. and Tate Sterrett.

Judge Johnston began his service as a Superior Court judge in 1991, became chief judge in 2000, and served in that capacity until his retirement in 2010. He joined the North Carolina Bar Association in 1975 and, following eight years of private practice, was appointed to the District Court bench by Gov. Hunt in 1982.

In the following introductory address, Rudisill provides further reference to Judge Johnston’s biography and his numerous contributions to the Mecklenburg County Bar, including a five-year term as president of the Mecklenburg County Bar Foundation.

The introductory address reads as follows:

Robert Perry Johnston was born in Huntington, West Virginia, the middle child of three children, William the oldest and Marilyn the youngest. Bob attended the Kentucky and Indiana Public Schools. He attended Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, graduating in 1969. He obtained his Juris Doctor from Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, in 1973, and was admitted to the California and N.C. bars in 1974 and 1975, respectively.

Bob was in private practice for eight years from 1974-1982, beginning with Sanders, Walker & London whose office was on the 9th floor of the Law Building, and he trained under the legendary Bill Walker as a trial attorney.

He was appointed a District Court judge by Jim Hunt in 1982, and he served for eight years until his appointment to the Superior Court bench in 1991. He served in Mecklenburg County and over the western half of North Carolina as scheduled by the Administrative Offices of the Courts from 1991-2000. Then, he served as the chief resident Superior Court judge until his retirement on January 12, 2010.

But the skeleton story of his professional career, as previously outlined, does not do justice to the flesh and substance of Bob’s personal and professional contributions to his profession, county, state and country.

Bob served in the U.S. Army JAG Corps for 32 years, retiring as a Colonel. He took time off from the bench to serve as a military judge. He more than fulfilled his duty to country while serving simultaneously as a leader in the legal community. Besides his career as a state jurist, he served his state and county by working on and directing numerous committees and organizations. He was a director of Mecklenburg Community Corrections, Inc., of the N.C. Center on Crime and Punishment. He was also a member of the Char-Meck Domestic Task Force and the District Courts Committee to Establish Child Support Guidelines. But perhaps his most lasting contribution was to his profession and its organization, the Meck Co Bar.

When Bob started practice in Charlotte, the legal community numbered in the 100s not the 1000s as it does today. And I mean the low hundreds. The Law Building was the legal center of the city, and the baby lawyer incubator. The most valuable asset of the legal community was the Law Library housed on the 6th floor of the Law Building. The local bar consisted of a single office on the mezzanine floor, run by a single staffer and later, by Mary Howerton and Lue An Whitten.

Bob took it upon himself to start the Meck Bar News, a monthly newsletter distributed to the Bar to announce events, publicize state bar announcements, and in general, serve as a new neural network for the legal community long before the internet and even when realtors forced us to use fax machines. Bob plunked out the first editions on his own typewriter, probably photocopied for distribution. Bill Poe saw Bob’s work and came to him with an observation: “Bob have you seen the Forsyth County Bar newsletter?  Bob, we can do better than this.” And so the Meck Bar News became a Bar function, an indispensable element, with Bob as its contributing editor.

Joining Judge Johnston, right, for his portrait unveiling was U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Albert Diaz.

As the newsletter went, so did the local rules. There was a standing tradition in the local bar that an attorney would not seek an entry of default if he or she was aware that the defendant was represented without giving the other attorney notice and a last opportunity to answer. But this was not a written rule; it was a local unicorn, its existence rumored but not verified. Bob and other lawyers formed the local rules committee and set out written procedures so that all practitioners, new and old would have an even and fair field on which to practice. From this humble beginning grew a large set of rules, but the practice of law became standardized and more efficient.

Bob also helped bring the MCB into the 21st century by helping revitalize the Meck Co Bar Foundation by which the Meck Co Bar built a sustainable and powerful future.  With the donation by the Robinson, Bradshaw Hinson firm of the Hyatt class action SS case attorneys’ fees, the Foundation surged as the charitable arm of the Bar promoting public understanding and respect for the rule of law and the role of the legal profession;  improving access to the legal system; and supporting the MCB charitable and educational goals. Bob served a five-year term as President of the Foundation.

Bob was recognized near his birthday of May 8, 2007, by his induction by Governor Mike Easley into the Order of the Long Leaf Pine Society. The Society is the highest honor the Governor of N.C. can bestow on a person who made significant contributions to the state and their community.

When the portrait is unveiled, the careful observer will note the story of this great life and devotion to county, the state and the law. I could entertain you with all afternoon with Bob’s many accomplishments. He still holds the record of presiding over the trial of the most prolific serial murderer in Meck Co history, Henry Louis Wallace, in 1997. As his friend Woody Connette observed, he continued to work long after he could have retired. But it was the accolades and stories that I and other committee members heard as we solicited donations that I wish to conclude my remarks with.

Jim Cooley, a litigator for 44 years in courts all over N.C., told me that Bob truly was one of the best judges who ever served on the trial bench. A fellow judge who served on the portrait committee said that Bob gave her the best advice she ever received on how to judge. He told her to never explain her decision – by which he meant, let it stand on its own, and don’t try to justify it further. Bob served as a mentor to numerous young lawyers, some of whom are here today, but he also was a friend to all at the Bar.

Like many judges, Bob disliked the campaign trail, even though he was forced to tread it numerous times. I remember the early morning breakfast campaign meetings at Anderson’s, the Saturday morning sign deliveries, and the polling place vigils, with about as much enthusiasm as he. A prominent real estate lawyer friend of his ran for Register of Deeds in a year in which he was also running for judge. Bob made it while she didn’t. She gladly contributed because she said she will always remember that Bob sent her flowers the next day to console her in her loss. And that’s how Bob treated his colleagues-a leader by example, a jurist by nature, and a friend in time of need.

It is our great good fortune that his image, as captured by Tom Edgerton, will continue to grace this Courthouse, due to the generosity of you, his friends, family and colleagues.

Thank you for this opportunity to honor Judge Robert P. Johnston.