Shelia Johnson for Supreme Court

Brings perspective, compassion and toughness

By Kate Opalewski

Michigan citizens have the opportunity to do something monumental in Nov. by electing the first African-American woman to the Supreme Court.

Judge Shelia Johnson has made history before, when she was elected in 2002 to serve as the first African-American female judge in Oakland County's 46th District Court. In 2008, she was re-elected for an unopposed second term to continue serving the communities of Southfield, Lathrup Village, Bingham Farms, Beverly Hills, Franklin and Southfield Township.

"I appreciate the opportunity to serve the community and the degree of confidence that people put in me. I make a big impact on people's lives and it's fulfilling," said Johnson, who is running to fill the partial two year term of former Justice Maura Corrigan, who left the bench to lead the Michigan Department of Human Services.

Johnson has a unique perspective. She spent a short time in the Deep South as a child during a time when segregation was rampant. "We moved to Detroit and when I went back, I recognized the examples of injustice. As I grew older, I understood why we are doing what we're doing and wouldn't want to see this ever happen again. I wanted to right the wrong. Everyone should be equal and that's how I knew this career was for me," said Johnson, a resident of Southfield for 23 years.

In the court room, Johnson has met all kinds of people, including LGBT people. "I don't care who they are attracted to or who they establish families with. Overall, when we're talking about America protecting its citizens, we're currently leaving out a large group of people that deserve the same respect and rights as anybody else."

Johnson is connected to the people. "I believe that judges must reach out into the community to educate citizens on the law and the legal process in order to foster an understanding, comfort, trust, and a sense of fairness with the judicial system. I frequently participate as a speaker for community events and on panel discussions on legal issues in furtherance of this goal," she said.

With a degree from the University of Michigan Law School, Johnson gained 18 years of legal experience in both state and federal courts where she practiced both civil and criminal litigation. Later, when Johnson assumed the bench, she presided over cases as a trial judge.

"It can be a thankless job at times and somebody may walk out of the court room unhappy, but they will get a fair trial even if they lose. Citizens, regardless of race or gender, have said to me that they love what I'm doing," she said.

Together with other Democratic candidates Judge Connie Marie Kelley and University of Michigan Law School Professor Bridget McCormack, Judge Johnson is hoping to balance the Supreme Court. Republican-nominated justices have held a majority on the state's highest court since 1999 for all but a few months in 2010.

"Some justices don't respect others enough to listen. We need to be able to reach across the aisle, make a good argument that's grounded in law, leave bias to the side, and gain trust and respect from colleagues. This is one area that needs to be addressed by fresh blood," she said. "We're at a unique point in time and this is a great opportunity to run with these women who identify with regular people. It's a historic ticket and says a lot about where we are in society. It speaks to the respect we have garnered and the people's trust in the job women will do," she said.

Right now, women and children are major focus for the candidates. According to Johnson, it is a judge's responsibility to impact children as role models and to encourage compliance with the law. She spearheaded the establishment of a "Court In Schools" program where she holds actual court sessions at local high schools and middle schools with the goal of deterring youth from criminal behavior and inspiring them toward positive career choices. Additionally, Johnson serves as a "Community Partner" with Southfield Public Schools, making regular appearances at "Career Days" at all level schools to mentor students interested in law through regular sponsorship of a summer intern in her office.

"I came from a small family. I am an only child. I became strong and learned to stand up for myself. I relate to children so well and it hurts my heart truly to the core when I see a child standing before the court. It's a very unique way that I run my court room in that regard," she said. "This is the future of our country and many have lost respect for the law. I try to help children see how this affects themselves, other people and the environment. I care about each young person that comes before me, but I'm not scared to be tough when I need to be."

Johnson wants to make it clear that she does not exclude men and the elderly in her fight for equality. "I advocate for access to justice and balanced decisions for all of us, but women haven't had the opportunity to play on the same playing field. There are biases inherited in the judicial system. The way women are viewed is still a little different. Children can't advocate for themselves. We need to protect them and make sure things are done right and equally for them. Historically, women and children haven't had that voice and it's very important to make sure their interests are understood and their voices are heard just as equally as we do for other aspects of people in society," she said.

That's why Johnson said it's so important for people to vote. "We live in a democracy and a free society. The only reason we do is because people fought for it. In fighting for it, they knew the issues, they knew the people, and they cast their votes accordingly. Legislators and justices have the biggest impact on your life. Educate yourself and vote."

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