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The Nonsense Stops Here

By Adam Cohen

TIME magazine 03-16-98

(TIME. March 16) -- The story is told of the time Martin Luther King's widow Coretta Scott King was waiting to testify in a criminal case before Judge Norma Holloway Johnson. The judge sent a U.S. marshal to bring Mrs. King into the courtroom, but he returned alone, saying the civil rights matriarch needed another 10 minutes to prepare herself. Johnson, jabbing her finger in the air, responded quickly: "Martin, I'd give another 10 minutes. Her, I want here right now."

The tale may be apocryphal, but it captures the no-nonsense style of the judge who will play a key role in shaping Kenneth Starr's investigation of Clinton. Witnesses have tangled with Starr over a host of issues, including Executive privilege and immunity. As chief judge of Washington's federal district court, Johnson must resolve these disputes and decide how far Starr can go.

Johnson, 65, attended Georgetown University law school at night while working as a public school teacher. After stints in the Justice Department's civil division and on the D.C. Superior Court, she was named to the federal bench by Jimmy Carter. Johnson has acquired a reputation for tilting strongly in favor of the government. In 1996 an appeals court reversed a decision of hers and, after citing her hostility to the defendant's lawyer, took the rare step of ordering that a different judge take over the case. She is also known for a testy courtroom manner. Last Friday she threatened to jail Lewinsky lawyer William Ginsburg if he didn't do a better job of holding his tongue.

In the next few weeks, Johnson will have to make some very important judgments. White House aide Bruce Lindsey, a lawyer, is hoping Executive privilege will protect him from answering Starr's questions. Lewinsky's first lawyer, Francis Carter, is claiming attorney-client privilege. Ginsburg is arguing that Starr should be forced to honor an earlier immunity deal with Lewinsky. And Clinton lawyer David Kendall wants Johnson to plug grand jury leaks he says are coming from Starr. During Watergate, John Sirica used the same judicial perch to prod along the investigation of President Nixon. Court watchers familiar with Johnson's pro-government tilt wonder which way it will lead her: to favor the special prosecutor who formally represents the government, or the President he seems intent on bringing down.

--Reported by Viveca Novak/Washington
In TIME This Week

Cover Date: March 16, 1998

True Colors
A Primary Roll Call
"Primary Colors" A Tale Of Two Bills
All The Presidents' Movies
Will Betty Currie Stick To The Script?
The White House: Getting The Story Straight
The Nonsense Stops Here: Profile of Judge Johnson
Purloined Papers At The State Department?
Now It's Paula Jones' Turn
Hizzoner The Hall Monitor: Rudy Giuliani
Mr. Gates Goes To Washington
Bill Gates' Diary
Harassed Or Hazed?
The Notebook: Oh...That Clinton Personality

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