Growing up in the small town of Sulphur Springs, Texas, Kelli Johnson used to watch her father litigate in the courtroom against large corporations in an effort to fight for the little guy. Nowadays, as a judge in the 178th Criminal District Court, Johnson is living out her dreams of being a part of the legal process she grew up loving.
“I grew up with a really positive view of the law. My father was a one-man firm who wasn’t intimidated by anyone. He raised me to think I could reach the stars,” Johnson says. “He made me always appreciate everything we had and the people we represented. I always thought he was the best trial lawyer who ever lived; I still do.”
Her father’s sense of duty and his work ethic stayed with Johnson as she left home to attend Texas Christian University, where she graduated with honors. She went on to serve as a White House intern and member of the White House Press Advance Team for two years during the Clinton administration. During her years in Washington, DC, she says, “As a young person, I got to be a part of something bigger than me. I got to be there for the Middle East peace accord. I was the first one in my family to go abroad. It was exciting, and I knew I wanted to pursue law as a part of [my passion for] public service that’s always been a part of me.”
She eventually returned to Texas to attend South Texas College of Law, where she ranked in the top ten in the State of Texas Bar Exam. Her next move was to take a position with the Harris County District Attorney’s office.
“I love constitutional law. I love puzzles, and this was a great way to fight for victims. I like to think I have a reputation of fighting for both sides,” she adds. “I never think it’s ‘win at all costs.’ I really believe you can fight hard to make sure the right results happen. I was one of those prosecutors who fought for rehabilitation for offenders.” Her work earned her recognition as Prosecutor of the Year twice.
In the spirit of diving further into her passion, she decided to run for a local judicial office in 2016 and won the second-highest vote count during that election season.
“I really wanted to be a part of the criminal-justice system as a whole. I wanted to live it more than talk about it. A lot of people think being a judge is calling balls and strikes, but it’s [also about] how much you want to devote yourself to the policy behind what we do,” she says about her decision to run. “When I think about criminal justice, you’re more than a judge. You’re a role model, a counselor, and a therapist of sorts to people who are before you. You can also be a part of the reform that is so needed in a system that is incarceration-driven.”
As a judge, Johnson keeps three key ideas at the forefront of her actions: restore courtroom fairness, reform criminal justice, and reduce recidivism.
“I think ‘fairness’ is such an easy word that people throw out, but historically there has not been fairness across the board. I’ve been very active in creating the General Order Bond that provides instant relief for people with nonviolent offenses,” she says. “As a judge, I’m leading a part of our system that creates resources to help people be successful.”
Johnson’s commitment to using the legal system to improve the community is also seen in her participation in the Success Through Addiction Recovery (STAR) court. She describes it as “an intensive, holistic approach as a treatment court. It’s aimed at individuals who have experienced substance abuse, along with possible mental-health problems that have plagued them their entire lives. We work together as a staff and get into their whole life. We help them with everything, and it’s one of the most successful courts to transform people’s lives.”
Johnson believes the STAR court is two-thirds more successful than a regular probation court, and she theorizes it’s because defendants see a person in authority tell them, perhaps for the first time, that they can be successful.
“To me, it’s really about acknowledging people who are charged. It’s about giving value equally across the courtroom. It’s been really interesting to look forward and not be defined by the past,” she says. “If you give them the tools and empowerment, it’s amazing what they can do with it.”
Although Johnson is running unopposed, she still emphasizes that people need to take part in the voting process and make their voices heard all the way down the ballot.
“I feel so strongly that every single one of us has to cast a vote. I really wish that everybody believed that casting a vote is an absolute must. It’s so imperative. It’s important that we vote for the people who represent us as individuals, and that we know who we are voting for locally,” she advises. “I wish people felt more active in choosing their local leaders, because they represent everyone here. The local [officials] have more of an effect on our daily lives than nationally elected officials. That’s why people should research all the candidates and make an intelligent decision about who they vote for.”
When she’s not in the courtroom or advocating for justice, Johnson spends time with her fiancée, Hilary Bartlett, and their 10-year-old son, Evan. They live in the Oak Forest neighborhood, where they are active in their community.
For more information on Kelli Johnson, visit judgekellijohnson.com.
This article appears in the October 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.