One Square Mile: Newton County Superior Court

Judge Horace J Johnson Jr.
Photograph by Dustin Chambers

Covington |36 miles| Southeast of Atlanta
Judge Horace J. Johnson Jr. sits behind a desk covered with case files, in the shadow of a 12-foot wall lined with law books thick as bricks. A mountain of words. He prepared yesterday for the civil docket he’ll preside over today: divorces, separations, child custody issues. “The law is about inclusion,” he says. “And inclusion is more than just words.” Forty-nine years ago, at Ficquett Elementary, less than two blocks from here, Johnson became one of the first black students to be integrated into Newton County schools. He remembers walking out of the building behind a row of state troopers, an unwitting symbol against a scrum of protesters. Later Johnson would leave, first to Emory University, then to University of Georgia, where he got his law degree. After three years in private practice in Atlanta, he noticed there were no black lawyers practicing back in Newton County. Seventeen years defending neighbors under his Covington shingle earned Johnson the respect of both former governor Roy Barnes, who put Johnson on the Alcovy Circuit bench in 2002, and the electorate that has kept him there since. Now Johnson rides the rural circuit between Covington and Monroe, the Walton County seat just north. Wielding the gavel in the community he grew up in is a mixed bag. He’s locked up people he’s known all his life, and he has bumped into grateful friends who have made good on a second chance. But more than the sentences he issues, Johnson believes he is a symbol from the bench. “If there’s a person who looks like them,” he says, “folks might feel like the system is open to them.” Back in his chambers, Johnson stands and slips on the black robe. He strides out, through the long hallway, up a few steps to a narrow doorway at the back of Courtroom 3. As Johnson enters the room, the white-haired bailiff calls out to the gallery of citizens, black and white, “All rise.”

 This article originally appeared in our November 2015 issue.