Meet The Incumbent
Judge Susan Johnson
In this edition of Meet the Incumbent, we interview Judge Susan Johnson, the presiding judge in Department 22 of the Eighth Judicial District Court, Clark County, Nevada.
Prior to taking the bench, Judge Johnson was a practicing attorney for over two decades, with the last 12 in her own “boutique” law practice, handling various civil and family law matters. In her first 8 years of practice, Judge Johnson was an associate and shareholder in Rawlings Olson & Cannon, handling and litigating insurance and civil rights defense cases. She spent the next 2 years thereafter litigating numerous personal injury cases. Over the years, her practice morphed into a quasi-judicial practice, where she acted as arbitrator in over 600 cases, mediator, alternate Child Support Hearing Master, Judge Pro Tempore (Las Vegas Justice Court), and Settlement Judge for Nevada Supreme Court. Ultimately, she enjoyed her quasi-judicial practice so much that she wanted to do the job full-time.
Vegas Legal: What does being a judge mean to you?
Judge Johnson: I have the responsibility and power to preside over, arbitrate, facilitate and make decisions concerning various aspects of the law. Under our U.S. and State Constitutions, a judge is the only one who can remove a person’s liberty for an extended period of time. I take these responsibilities very seriously.
VL: What was the most memorable case you tried as an attorney before taking the bench?
JJ: Hands down, Bluestein v. Groover, tried in January/February 1987. This civil rights case was against two police officers (David Groover and Sgt. Eugene Smith), accused of denying Frank Bluestein (the son of Steven Bluestein, then an official with the Culinary Union) his civil rights when he was shot and killed outside his condominium complex in June 1980 after brandishing a firearm at the officers. While I was not one of the three lawyers at the defense table in trial, I was one of the young lawyers drafting motions at the office. At least half of the case was won by motion practice. Ultimately, we won a defense verdict.
VL: And what’s been the most memorable case you have presided over as a judge?
JJ: There are several that are memorable for one reason or another. A couple of construction defect cases are memorable because of the length of their trials (9 months and 5 ½ months), and others are memorable given their issues. For example, one case I heard early in my judicial career dealt with a woman wanting the return of her placenta after her giving birth.
VL: Do you have a favorite and least favorite thing about being a judge?
JJ: My favorite thing is hearing a thoughtful, academic and respectful argument by counsel. From a community standpoint, I enjoy educating groups about what we judges do, which is interpreting the law…that is, we do not enact or make the law or enforce it. I enjoy discussing what is happening in the court system to lawyers so they can understand why and what we do. My least favorite is dealing with unscrupulous and unprepared attorneys.
VL: Have you ever experienced a situation where you had to support a legal position that conflicted with your personal beliefs? If so, how did you handle it?
JJ: I have sat here for several minutes trying to recall such a specific instance, but cannot. However, from a general standpoint, my personal belief is, unless the economics warrant it, the case should not be litigated in a courtroom. Unfortunately, there are instances where one or both litigants refuse to talk to each other and/or compromise their differences even though it makes economic sense for them to resolve their differences outside the courtroom. A classic example of that is a divorce action where the parties’ emotions are high. While there may be a prevailing party in an eventual trial, both parties end up losing.
VL: Has there ever been a situation that tested the limits of your patience? What is your advice for handling those moments?
JJ: One of our wise judges once had a piece of paper on the bench, which read: “Do Not Engage.” Unfortunately, there have been times where the conduct of a lawyer or party serves nothing but to disrupt court proceedings, resulting in my patience being tested and particularly, in me raising my voice. Over the years—and particularly when the party or lawyer talks on and on—I have learned to simply bring them back to the issues at hand, and ask simple questions in a respectful way such as, “What does that have to do with the matter at hand?” Sometimes, that question or something like it has to be asked several times before the party or lawyer gets it.
VL: Do you have any attorney pet peeves?
JJ: Generally, it is lawyers being unorganized, unprepared and unprofessional. For example, we have experienced lawyers seeking default judgment, when they have neglected to see entry of default first. There are lawyers who file motions, but do not serve the opposing party. I note such results in my office vacating the hearings of those motions. One big pet peeve is when my law clerk and I review and prepare for a large, complicated motion, only to have the lawyers come to the hearing to request a continuance. It simply wastes judicial resources, and I am particularly not thrilled when I have taken the motion home to read.
VL: What is your best piece of advice for litigants and/or attorneys?
JJ: Be prepared, academic and respectful of the court, attorneys and parties. Understand the judge is there to make the best decision he or she can, and the judge wants to be educated on the issue. It is not necessary to take shots at the opposing party, and if anything, such conduct annoys the judge.
VL: What is your passion outside of law?
JJ: If we are talking about hobbies, my husband, Eric, who is now a district court judge, and I enjoy traveling and running long-distance. This year alone, I have run one full-marathon, and six half-marathons. Eric has run more than that. I also enjoy learning about wine and traveling to wine regions. If I had more time, I would like to spend it learning more about history and genealogy.
If we are discussing charitable endeavors, I am a Rotarian and my passions include working on my club’s and district’s local and international projects. In December, both Eric and I enjoy working with Bobby and Sandy Ellis in their charitable cause: Giving away toys and shoes to children attending four elementary schools in both Las Vegas and Henderson. Eric and I have also worked to make Green Valley High School a better place to learn, and we were pleased to be named to the school’s Wall of Fame in June 2015.
VL: Finally…what do you love most about Vegas?
JJ: I have lived in Clark County for 52 years, and could not imagine living anywhere else. Clark County encompasses much more than “The Strip,” and contrary to what tourists have asked me, I do not live in a hotel and my school does not have slot machines for us to play. Our cities have such a sense of community, and I am pleased to have raised my children here. There is also no question that the areas outlying Las Vegas—such as Lake Mead, Mount Charleston, Red Rock and Boulder City—are a treat to visit.