James Douglas "Jim" Johnson, 85, of Conway, known to all as "Justice Jim", died Saturday, Feb. 13, 2010 at his home on Beaverfork Lake.
He was born on Aug. 20, 1924 in north Crossett, Ark., the son of T.W. "Tommy" Johnson and Myrtle Long Johnson. He graduated from Crossett High School in 1942 and attended Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee. On Dec. 7, 1942, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, attaining the rank of corporal and serving in the Pacific Theatre.
Following World War II, he completed his law degree at Cumberland University in 1947 and returned to Crossett to practice law. While studying for the Arkansas bar exam in Little Rock, he met his soul mate, Virginia Morris of El Paso. He proposed to her in a taxi behind the state Capitol, a building which would have a special place in their lives. They were married on Dec. 21, 1947.
After establishing a law practice in north Crossett in 1950, he ran for State Senator in Ashley and Chicot counties, winning the seat and at the age of 26 becoming the youngest State Senator in Arkansas history. He was re-elected in 1952 and in 1954 ran for Attorney General, losing to incumbent Tom Gentry. In 1956, he ran for Governor, finishing second in the Democratic primary to then-Governor Orval Faubus. In 1958, he ran for Associate Justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court and was elected to an eight-year term.
During his tenure as a Supreme Court Justice, he was noted for his opinions supporting the rights of employees in worker’s compensation cases, often noting that in giving up the right to sue, the employee was entitled to the benefit of the doubt in such cases. While sometimes finding himself in the court’s minority, he took great pride in his dissenting opinions. The day of his resignation from the Court in April of 1966, he received a call from the late Wiley Branton, Sr., a civil rights lawyer, who stated that he had been an outstanding and "color-blind" judge, a compliment in which he always took great pride.
Leaving the Supreme Court in 1966, he embarked on a campaign for Governor of Arkansas. With an ultimate campaign budget of only $22,000, he barnstormed the state with a country music band, "Gene Williams’ Country Junction." Known as a tremendous orator, he made more than 80 stump speeches on courthouse squares that summer, defeating seven opponents, most with substantially larger budgets, to become the Democratic nominee for Governor. That fall, he lost the general election to Winthrop Rockefeller. There was no disclosure of campaign finances in those days, but most historians agree that Governor Rockefeller spent millions of his own money to secure election. In 1968 he ran for the U.S. Senate, losing to Senator J. William Fulbright in the Democratic primary, while his wife, Virginia, became the first woman to run for Governor of Arkansas. Later that year, he managed the successful campaign in Arkansas of American Party presidential candidate George Wallace, who secured Arkansas’ six electoral votes.
In 1980, disillusioned with the Carter administration, he became a Republican and supported the election of Ronald Reagan as president, helping Reagan carry Arkansas. In 1984, he was the Republican nominee for Chief Justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court.
He is survived by his sons, Mark Johnson of Little Rock, John David (Dave) Johnson of Fayetteville and Joseph Daniel (Danny) Johnson of Conway; one daughter-in-law, Catherine Johnson of Little Rock; eight grandchildren, Allison Johnson and Andrea Johnson of Little Rock, Patrick Johnson, Shelby Johnson, and Adam Johnson of Greenwood, Mary Beth Johnson of Conway, Rachael Daugherty of Little Rock, and Josh McKibben of Little Rock. He is also survived by his lifelong friend and confidant, Phil Stratton of Conway.
He was predeceased by his parents, two brothers, Normie W. Johnson of Crossett and Thomas L. (T.L.) Johnson of Crossett, as well as his wife of 59 years, Virginia.
Arrangements will be announced by Roller-McNutt Funeral Home of Conway.
The family would like to thank his many friends and caregivers who have been so kind during his illness, with special thanks to Dr. Bart Throneberry, Dr. Tom Roberts, Dr. Sue Tsuda, Dr. James France, Dr. Karl Landberg, Dr. Michael Stanton, Dr. Greg Kendrick, Dr. Tyrone Lee, and the nurses and staff at Conway Regional Medical Center.