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Byron Johnson

Ardor in the court

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Byron Johnson seeks justice in the world--literally and figuratively. From the day that he was sworn in to the Idaho State Bar in 1962 until the end of his 11-year term on the Idaho Supreme Court, he argued and ruled on hundreds of cases with long-standing consequence. But he is also a poet. In his just-published memoir, Poetic Justice, Johnson opines on fellow judges, the loves of his life and the South Fork of the Payette River.

How do you spend your days?

Lately my days have been an aberration. In July 2010, I was diagnosed with osteomyelitis: an infection of the jawbone. I underwent a procedure at the Huntsman Cancer Center in Utah called "a flap." They slit your throat, pull the skin up over the face, take out the jawbone, replace it with a bone from the tibia of your leg, hold it together with titanium, bring the flap back down and sew you up.

Did you undergo chemotherapy?

I rejected it at the time. But about three months ago, it was determined that I had a reoccurrence of a tumor. [I'm scheduled to] start chemo at [Mountain States Tumor Institute] and a week [after that], I start radiation on top of that.

How are you feeling about all of that?

If I had my druthers, I'd rather not do it. I was offered surgery again at the Huntsman Center. I told them I was a gambling man and asked if they would give me a 50-50 shot, and they said no, it would be less than that.

What will your treatment schedule be like?

Five weeks: chemo once a week and radiation five times a week. It's no secret, but I really don't want people to think that's why my book is coming out.

I would be remiss if I didn't ask about your tremors.

It's Parkinson's. But the tremors are not the disease, it's the medication.

You write quite lovingly in your memoir about your mother, Bronell, calling her the most significant person in your life.

At the height of the Depression, she borrowed money from her father to attend the College of Idaho. He had to cash in an insurance policy. Upon graduating, she made $130 a month as a teacher. And she saved it all, paying off her father. She taught everything from kindergarten through high school.

You decided to come back from Harvard Law School to be one of your mother's caregivers in her final days.

I took care of her at night, but I was always studying my law books, trying to keep up. She made me promise to go back to law school.

Why did you decide to return to Boise when you got your law degree?

I needed a job. I was married and had two children. I did get a referral to the Simplot Company. J.R. personally tried to hire me and said exactly this: "I got two boys, not worth the powder to blow them to hell, and I got one kid who is going to be the president of the company and you can be his lawyer." He offered me $500 a month. But I decided that I wanted to get as much trial experience as possible, so I went to work for Elam, Burke and Jeppesen.

Clarence Darrow was your hero--a staunch opponent of the death penalty. But in 1987, when Gov. Cecil Andrus said he would appoint you to the Idaho Supreme Court, he told you that he hoped you wouldn't dismantle the death penalty.

He knew what my opinion was. I had been his treasurer in 1970 and we had debated the issue many times. I was clearly opposed to the death penalty, but I also believed that it was a legislative matter and the law of the land. I said that the state constitution did not dictate that punishment be imposed by a jury. But years later, the Idaho Legislature determined that we should have jury sentencing in Idaho. I think that's awful for jurors. From the moment they sit in the box and know there's a conviction, they have to determine whether an individual lives or dies. For the typical citizen, that's beyond the pale.

You also helped create the Boise chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1970.

I just thought it was important to have that organization in the state of Idaho. I was also in charge of the legal committee, which selected cases that we would put ourselves behind.

In 1955, you helped form the Young Republicans Club of Ada County, but you eventually became a staunch Democrat. What turned you?

When I first went to Harvard, I joined the Young Republicans and the New Conservative Club. What disturbed me early on were the guys in Richard Nixon's camp. They were very heavy-handed. The book that really turned me around was The Lion and the Fox about Franklin D. Roosevelt. I grew up listening to my grandfather call FDR a communist, but I began to understand the New Deal was not a conspiracy, it was a human response to real problems.

Do you believe that our current economic circumstances call for a New Deal-type response?

I voted for Mr. Obama. I said at the time, "He's a marvelous candidate. I just don't know if he can govern or not." I'm still waiting. I wish he would spend more time in the Oval Office. I don't think he's perceived as a president. He's perceived as a candidate.

Who do you like in current Idaho politics, on either side of the aisle?

I like the lieutenant governor [Brad Little]. He's a shirttail relative of my wife. I like the young woman [Nicole LeFavour] running for the Second Congressional District seat against Mike Simpson, though she has no chance. I like Cherie Buckner-Webb a lot. I played semi-pro baseball with her father when he was 30 and I was 18.

You certainly know Betty Richardson well, who is running for the State Senate this year.

She was in high school when she helped out on my 1972 campaign for the U.S. Senate. The worst thing that ever happened to the Democratic Party was when Betty was appointed to be U.S. attorney in 1993. She was the Ada County Democratic chair. She was the logical state chair. I think if Betty had become state chair, Democrats would have continued to get more representation in the state Legislature.

It was rather painful to read the details of the dissolution of your first marriage in your book. Why was it important to include that chapter?

It was painful to write. That's the biggest failure of my life. In particular, that was for my grandchildren. I wanted there to be a full description of what happened instead of it just being something simple like, "My first wife and I decided to get divorced."

Years later, U.S. Sen. Frank Church encouraged you to marry your current wife, Patricia.

In 1984, shortly after Frank's death, we were married in the former home of Bethine Church's parents.

Are you still trying to solve the world's problems?

I'll tell you what my reading schedule is. I read the Statesman every morning. I read your paper and I know what your general gist of things is, and I like it. I read the Sunday Times, the Christian Science Monitor and The Nation. I have great interest in how the U.S. Supreme Court is treating the health-care debate.

What's your guess on what their ruling will be?

I predict that the court will uphold the law.

Where is the joy in your life today?

My home, my wife, my children, my grandchildren. We have a trip planned on the Middle Fork [of the Salmon River] this July. And my wife would like us to go back to Europe to do some hiking. We'll see how it goes.

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