“Idaho Needs Poets More Than Judges”

Byron Johnson

Originally, Byron Johnson’s Poetic Justice was going to be just a private memoir, intended to consumption for family and friends. (We still have a spiral-bound copy of that version, not drastically different in content from the new one.)

A good thing for the state that he decided otherwise, and the title of this post – taken from the title of one of the poems strewn through this book – suggests why. Poetic Justice doesn’t read like the brief of a former Supreme Court just, probably because Johnson was an unusual justice, and an unusual Idahoan, and much of what he has to say the state should hear.

The book was released last week, and its release event drew around 100 people including justices, politicians, activists and people of widely varied description. The variety suggests a writer who has lived several different lives, and Johnson has.

He was a Boise attorney, regarded highly enough that though in solo practice he was chosen for a seat on the Idaho Supreme Court – not a common happening. He was a political figure, a Democrat in Boise when there were few Democrats in Boise, and a Democratic candidate for the Senate (in 1972) when that was very much an upstream swim. (He wasn’t elected.) He worked in some extraordinary service to Idaho history (notably in Idaho City) along the way. When he left the court (he set something of a revived precedent in serving out his term rather than resigning midway, letting voters choose his replacement), he was asked what he would do next, and initially answered: Whatever I choose to. When that didn’t suffice, he said he planned to write poetry. And so he has.

You can read this memoir for some useful background in recent Idaho politics and law, and those of us absorbed in such things will relish that. But what’s unique here is an uncommonly distinctive voice and personality. There’s this slice, for example, spotlighting one of Johnson’s quirks.

Beginning in 1972, when I ran for the senate nomination, I wore a tie only very infrequently, and not in court, except in a few instances. In the late 1970’s, I argued before the Supreme Court without a tie, wearing a turtle-neck sweater under my jacket. Justice [Robert] Huntley wrote to me, saying I was jeopardizing my client’s interests. My client won the case. The next time I appeared before the Court, however, I wore an old hand-tied bow tie from my college days. Huntley had the clerk, Fred Lyon, hand me a note that said, “I meant a real tie.” In 1986, when I was preparing to argue before the Court in Crooks v. Maynard, representing the District Judges Association as amicus curiae, I agonized about whether to wear a tie. Finally, I did, reaching into my closet to get an expensive tie I had purchased several years before. Huntley sent a note to me after the argument, saying, “Now you look like a real lawyer.” I wanted to throw up.

When I went to see Justice Huntley and tell him I would not be wearing a tie when I took the bench, he said, “I thought so.” When I told Chief Justice [Allan] Shepard, he sat and pondered for a moment or two and then said, “How do you feel about the robe?” I told him I had no problem with the robe. I later learned that the members of the Court did not wear robes until the 1930’s. It was considered elitist by the early justices.

Idahoans like to talk about the individuals, the real individuals, in their midst. There are fewer of them these days than there once were. But you can still pick up Poetic Justice and read the words of one of them. And you should.

241 pgs. Available through Limberlost Press, Boise.

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