Judge Norma Holloway Johnson was not one to flinch before powerful men who she felt had betrayed the public’s trust. “You capriciously pursued a course of personal gain for you, your family, and your friends,” she told Illinois Rep. Dan Rostenkowski in 1996 when sentencing him to prison for mail fraud. “You have stained them, as well as yourself, and the high position you held.” Two years later, she proved just as unswayed by the office of the president.
Born in Lake Charles, La., Johnson was working to support her family by the age of 12, said the Los Angeles Times. As a teenager she moved in with a relative in Washington, D.C., where she could get the education that would have been denied her in the segregated South. After earning a teaching degree, she taught junior high school while studying law at Georgetown University at night.
In 1980, Johnson was appointed to the federal bench by President Jimmy Carter, said the Associated Press. She was the first black female judge at the U.S. District Court in Washington and the only woman to have served as its chief judge.
Johnson’s most prominent case was overseeing the 1998 grand jury investigation into President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, said The New York Times. She blocked efforts by the president’s lawyers to invoke executive privilege, and ruled that Lewinsky’s lawyers had to share documents with special prosecutor Kenneth Starr. The grand jury led to Clinton’s impeachment, and acquittal, in the House of Representatives later that year.