Blackville native named U.S. Magistrate Judge

  • Blackville native Herman N. (Rusty) Johnson Jr. (left) is sworn in on June 1 as a U.S. Magistrate Judge in the Northern District of Alabama by Karon Owen Bowdre, the Chief U.S. District Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama.

A Blackville native is the newest United States Magistrate Judge for the Northern District of Alabama.

Herman N. (Rusty) Johnson Jr., son of Carroll J. Priester and the late Herman Johnson, was sworn in on June 1 after the U.S. District Judges in the Northern District of Alabama selected him from a competitive field of candidates to replace a retiring judge. He will serve in the position for a renewable eight-year term in Huntsville, Ala.

“I’m told it’s about like getting struck by lightning,” he said of how there are few opportunities to become a U.S. Magistrate Judge.

Johnson credits his parents, grandparents, teachers and upbringing in Blackville with helping to shape him and instill the values he needed to get to where he is today. “It says a great deal about what people can do if they practice discipline, hard work, moderation in attitude and behavior, and are judicious about what they do and how they approach things,” said the 1987 graduate of Blackville-Hilda High School.

He is now one of five U.S. Magistrate Judges in the Northern District. Four are based in Birmingham while he works in Huntsville. They are part of the federal trial system and assist U.S. District Judges, although their duties vary by district. Johnson said his job includes a mix of civil and criminal cases.

“My primary goal is to ensure that I dispense justice according to our conception of the rules of law under the constitution and under the rules Congress has passed,” said Johnson.

Though this is Johnson’s first time as a judge, he has a vast array of legal experience, including as a judicial law clerk in the U.S. Court of Appeals (Sixth Circuit) and U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. “I saw how this job is actively performed,” he said of what he learned from his two years as a clerk.

From 2001 to 2009, Johnson was a member and associate attorney for Wiggins, Childs, Quinn & Pantazis, LLC, a law firm with offices in Birmingham, Ala. and Washington, D.C. “At the firm, Professor Johnson represented litigants primarily in class and collective actions, with particular emphasis on wage and hour, employment discrimination, ERISA, and international human rights litigation,” according to his online biography.

Before assuming his judicial position, Johnson had been an associate professor at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law since 2010. His teaching and research interests included civil rights, civil procedure, employment law, equitable remedies, evidence and complex litigation, and federal courts. He also was a visiting professor at Cambridge University in London, England for two summers.

A majority of his experience has been in civil law, but Johnson said the hardest part of his job now as a judge relates to criminal law because “you are making decisions about someone’s liberty”, a sacred right under the U.S. Constitution. For example, he has to decide whether someone should be detained until trial or whether a defendant in a misdemeanor case should be fined or sentenced to jail.

However, Johnson said, he believes all of his professional experience along with his upbringing in Blackville, law school education and time spent in the Peace Corps have “helped me in my decision-making process.”

After earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from Duke University in 1991, he earned a Juris Doctor and Master of International Affairs from Columbia University in New York in 1999.

In between his studies at Duke and Columbia universities, Johnson served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali, West Africa, from 1991 to 1993 and as an Americorps NCCC volunteer from 1994 to 1995. He participated in conflict resolution in Nelson Mandela's government in South Africa.

Johnson and his wife, Tammara Matthews Johnson, who is a federal prosecutor, have two children.