Dekalb Superior Court Judge Courtney L. Johnson presides over Thursday’s hearing. Suspended Dekalb County CEO Burrell Ellis appears in a hearing in Dekalb County Superior Court Thursday, January 23, 2014. Ellis’ attorneys called District Attorney Robert James to the stand after the state lost on a motion to quash his appearance. KENT D. JOHNSON/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

DeKalb judge understands drama, but loves law

The folksy courtroom skills of “Matlock” captivated Courtney Johnson as a child growing up in the shadow of the DeKalb County Courthouse in Decatur.

But the Atlanta-based TV show lost its shine when Johnson began studying the law, as an undergraduate at Georgetown University and then at Emory Law School. She found developing a deep understanding of the law easily trumped courtroom drama.

“I know what’s theater, and I know what the law is,” Johnson said. “I’m listening for the legal argument. There has to be a respect for the law.”

That no-nonsense approach to legal battles has been on display in pretrial hearings in the highest-profile case of Johnson’s four-year judicial tenure, the political corruption case against suspended DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis.

In recent hearings, she repeatedly demanded that prosecutors and defense attorneys stop the personal attacks that have marked the case since Ellis was indicted on 14 felony charges alleging he strong-armed county vendors into donating to his re-election campaign and punished those who did not give.

“Move on,” she told attorneys who couldn’t cite legal rulings, other cases or even law review articles.

That focus makes it likely that she’ll keep a tight rein when Ellis heads to trial in June. She has already ruled against Ellis’ defense argument that District Attorney Robert James is conducting a political witch hunt by selectively prosecuting Ellis.

“Courtney does not to come to something with a particular idea in mind. She’s one who watches the detail,” said Gwen Keyes Fleming, the former DeKalb Solicitor and DA who twice hired Johnson to work for her.

“She does not get distracted from the real and true facts and the law as it relates to the facts,” said Keyes Fleming, now the Chief of Staff at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “She will serve the citizens of DeKalb well in weighing the facts in any case.”

Public service was not necessarily the goal for Johnson as she grew up a mile from the county courthouse, the youngest of five children.

Her parents – business owner Kenneth Johnson Sr. and registered nurse Juliette – did drill into her the idea that she would become a professional. Lawyer was on the list. So was doctor, she said.

When her brains and Catholic faith took her to Georgetown, she took a few legal-studies classes and became intent on becoming an attorney. She always planned to return to DeKalb, home to her immediate family and a host of aunts, uncles and cousins.

But her close ties to family led her to postpone law school for a year. Her father was diagnosed with cancer during her senior year of college, prompting her to handle the administrative operations of his two liquor stores, while her two older brothers managed one each.

Her fathers death in her first year of law school did not distract her from her studies or family obligations. By her third year, she was working in the DeKalb solicitor’s office and became hooked on being a trial attorney.

After graduating, she worked for four years at the solicitor’s office and another six years as a DeKalb prosecutor. In 2010, just 10 years out of law school, she won her first run to become a Superior Court Judge. She was 36.

“The way she presents herself is the way she is, level-headed and calm with this quiet confidence,” said Ashley Derrick, a Decatur Realtor who knows Johnson from the Leadership DeKalb program. “But she’s thinking through everything. She focuses on the substance of everything.”

Johnson made local history well before drawing the Ellis case. When she took office in 2010, the DeKalb Superior Court bench became majority African-American for the first time. The 10-judge bench also became evenly divided between men and women.

With her presence, the court reflects the demographics of the county. Having the face of the majority of the county on the bench might help DeKalb come to grips with whatever the fallout of the Ellis trial becomes.

Georgia’s third-largest county once saw a former sheriff convicted of assassinating the sheriff-elect over an expected corruption probe.

Repercussions of the Ellis case could expand far beyond his office, because corruption allegations have spilled from the case to other elected officials and high-level county workers such as the purchasing director.

Johnson’s even-keeled demeanor and focus on the facts could force some of those accusations to the surface for review, even as the case against Ellis is laid out and defended.

“She’s very driven by her conscience and the law,” said Annie Caiola, a Decatur attorney who knows Johnson from Leadership DeKalb. “She’s very capable of separating what’s nonsense and what’s not, and she isn’t likely to give much time or attention to a sideshow.”

Johnson cannot discuss the Ellis case or any others before her.

She does admit to a pet peeve of hers: attorneys talking over one another, or her, in court.

She holds courtroom decorum in high esteem, she said, because it allows both sides to make their arguments in the same environment.

Johnson – who long-ago traded legal dramas for the “Golden Girls,” even in reruns – said serving as judge gives her the ability to share that respect of the process while still being involved in the courtrooms she loved as a trial attorney.

“I respect the fact this is a court of law, and both sides are trying to sell their side to the jury,” Johnson said. “There is some drama to that. But at the same time, there has to be a level of respect, and it’s my job to maintain that so we can get to the truth.”