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In Texas, Judge H. Dee Johnson used to hear cases about contract disputes or torts. Now, 5,000 miles away on the atoll of Majuro in the Marshall Islands, his cases can be a bit more exotic. Take the case of grand theft dwelling, for example. Three men in this central Pacific republic disassembled a house while its owner was at work and moved the pieces to another island 15 miles away, Johnson says. “The poor guy gets off work and walks down the driveway, and his house is gone,” he says. Cases like these are just part of a day’s work for Johnson, who is associate justice and acting chief justice of the High Court of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. He sits as a trial judge and serves as chief administrative officer of the republic’s judicial branch. He got the job through an ad he spotted in National Lawyer in the fall of 1998. Johnson, 56, a graduate of Southern Methodist University School of Law, had been working for a decade in Dallas as a specialist in alternative dispute resolution. Previously, from 1982 to ’86, he was a judge of the 44th District Court. Johnson, who had a longtime interest in the anthropology of law, says he jumped at the opportunity to do something different. He flew out to the Marshall Islands — which are part of Micronesia and halfway between Hawaii and Australia, just north of the equator and just west of the International Dateline in the central Pacific — for an interview; he snagged the job. He’s been on the bench hearing civil and criminal cases since June 1999. Johnson lives in a nation of 55,000 people on 29 coral atolls and five low islands that cover 70 square miles of land. The differences between the United States and this island republic are enormous. “This is a 3,000-year-old, independent culture,” Johnson says. “This is an established culture, which is based around very tiny bits of land. Land is life itself out here. It’s all tied into community status and who’s in charge. Nothing I know about English or American law is useable here.” The judicial system in the Marshall Islands, which became independent in 1989, is modeled after the U.S. system. The Supreme Court has one full-time justice, with two others appointed as temporary members when needed. The next level is the high court, which handles felonies and civil cases. In addition, this court hears appeals from the district and community courts, which are similar to county and justice-of-the-peace courts in the United States. Johnson, who is based on the capital atoll of Majuro, is the only high court judge now. He has a four-year contract and can be removed from the bench only through impeachment. He generally has 300 to 350 active files, compared to a caseload of 1,000 to 1,200 in Texas. Court proceedings are conducted in English and the Malay-Polynesian language of the Marshallese people through the use of bilingual interpreters. As acting chief justice of his court, Johnson spends about half his time on employee and budget matters. The rest of his day is spent dispensing justice, a challenging task because of the differences between Marshallese culture and U.S. law. Land use rights are among the major causes of disputes, he says, because there is no written law covering succession of property on death. Property usually goes to the children, but other family members often lay claim to part of it, based on their history of helping out on the land. These disputes are difficult to resolve because of the extended relationships among the Marshallese, who sometimes refer to aunts and uncles as sisters and brothers, and to grandparents as parents. To resolve the matter, Johnson has to trace the genealogy of a family through its oral history and often gets help from an advisory Traditional Rights Court of three elders. “It’s a major area,” the judge says of the land cases. “It occasionally gets us Yankee judges in trouble when we apply [U.S.] laws that aren’t of any use here.” On the Marshallese side, they’re still on the learning curve as far as the concept of res judicata is concerned, Johnson says, with some land disputes having gone on for 150 years. But for the most part, he’s impressed with how the Marshallese people settle their disputes, pointing out that they don’t litigate as much as Americans. NO MAJOR CRIME Criminal cases move even quicker out in the islands, Johnson says, with most running 90 days from arrest to resolution. Here, too, justice often works differently than in the United States. “There is no prison here and yet it works,” Johnson says. “The social approach to criminal acts is pretty effective. There is no major crime problem.” There aren’t any sentencing guidelines for Johnson. He can send them to a jail in Majuro that can hold up to 20 prisoners. Bail, if any is required, is usually $50 to $100 and a defendant has to scrape that up himself because there aren’t any bondsmen on the Marshall Islands. Guns are illegal on the Marshall Islands, and even the police are unarmed, he says. The occasional illegal weapon is usually a .22-caliber rifle, the judge says. The drug problem is minimal, he says, and when someone is caught growing marijuana, it’s usually one or two plants. Johnson has never presided over a case of premeditated murder, but has dealt with cases that were the equivalent of manslaughter. In one case, he sentenced a defendant to 90 days in jail and five years probation. Another case ended in a five-year term and extended probation, while a third resulted in no jail time. Johnson wears a traditional judge’s robe when he’s on the bench. Off the bench, he sports the casual island look of a flowered shirt and sandals. “There are no dry cleaners here,” the judge says. “A wool suit is insanity. Putting on too many clothes is insane out here. You’ll rot or mildew.” Temperatures in this tropical climate hit the low 80s year around, and the humidity is always high. Judicial business sometimes takes the judge to the other atolls. Air Marshall Islands serves most of the major atolls. Otherwise, the judge takes a boat, which can be a long trip. Only three of the islands have electricity, and two have telephone service. On the smaller atolls, Johnson relies on generators and a two-way radio. There aren’t any hotels on these outlying islands, so when he visits, he bunks down on a straw mat in somebody’s house. Johnson is one of about 300 Americans on the capital atoll; he occasionally gets a laugh when he speaks a few words of the Marshallese language with a Texas accent. His annual salary of $40,000 plus housing equals about $65,000, and that’s plenty to live comfortably, he says. He spends every weekend diving among the coral reefs and considers Majuro to be his home now. “This is one of the most beautiful places on the face of the earth,” Johnson says. “Go through one Pacific sunset, and if you have a brain in your head, you’ll never leave.”

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