Justice Denise Johnson, a Long-Time Advocate for Access to Justice, Is Retiring from the Supreme Court
Access to the judicial system for poor people has been a defining issue in Justice Johnson’s legal career. Even before attending law school, Justice Johnson perceived the law as an important tool for change, recognizing that for change to occur people from all walks of life, including the poor, minorities and immigrants, need lawyers and access to the legal system. Following her graduation from the University of Connecticut School of Law in 1974, Justice Johnson worked for the New Haven Legal Assistance Association, Inc. for four years. After moving to Vermont, she worked for a year as a Legal Writing Instructor at Vermont Law School, before joining the Attorney General’s office where her interest in public policy continued. She served as an Assistant Attorney General and Chief of the Public Protection Division from 1980 to 1988. After a short stint in private practice, during which time Justice Johnson served as Chair of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, Governor Madeline Kunin tapped Justice Johnson to become the first female justice on the Vermont Supreme Court. Justice Johnson joined the bench in December 1990 and now, almost twenty-one years later, prepares to retire.
Throughout her tenure on the Vermont Supreme Court, Justice Johnson’s commitment to the ideals of access to justice for all has remained strong. Justice Johnson first served on the Board of Directors of the Vermont Bar Foundation from 1991-1996 and re-joined the Board in 2008. In 2002, Justice Johnson put together a committee on Equal Access to Legal Services, which hired a marketing firm to conduct a legal needs study. The study identified legal needs that were going unmet in the State of Vermont and prioritized those needs, leading to the creation of the Access to Justice Coalition.
The Access to Justice Coalition is comprised of a group of dedicated stakeholders, including the Vermont Supreme Court, the Vermont Bar Association, the Vermont Bar Foundation and Vermont’s major civil legal service providers: Vermont Legal Aid, Inc., Legal Services Law Line of Vermont, and the South Royalton Legal Clinic at Vermont Law School. The ATJ Coalition supports increasing the availability or pro bono and low bono legal services, assists self-represented litigants, and funds the Vermont Poverty Law Fellowship.
Justice Johnson has provided invaluable leadership to the Vermont Bar Foundation. During her recent tenure on the Board, she also served as a national IOLTA Commissioner, through the American Bar Association, enabling her to bring a more national perspective to legal services funding from across the country. She currently serves on the VBF’s Revenue Enhancement Committee.
Justice Johnson has worked hard to focus the Board’s attention on how its funds can best be used to target unmet legal needs by providing direct services to those most in need. Her goals have been to increase revenue for legal services, help self represented litigants, and increase the number of pro bono hours provided by the Bar. Her hope is that the Access to Justice Coalition will continue to play a leadership role in making the court system accessible and fair to all, regardless of income, and that it will continue to work closely with the Vermont Bar Foundation to ensure that litigants’ needs are met state-wide.
As for the future, Justice Johnson’s interest in access to justice for all is still in the forefront of her mind. She is interested in working on international rule of law projects, using her knowledge, skills and passion to help others around the world as they strive to develop or improve their own legal systems and provide access to justice for their citizens.