Palm Beach County, Fla., Court Judge Laura Johnson was in college the night a serial killer attacked. It changed her life, and her career path.
Johnson was the last person known to have entered the Tri Delta sorority house in Tallahassee on the night in 1978 when Ted Bundy slipped into the nearby Chi Omega house to kill two female Florida State University students.
She knew both victims.
“I was identified as the last person to come into my sorority house,” she said. “I was woken up by the police and interviewed by the police that morning.”
She was a sophomore finance major.
“I didn’t have any intention of going to law school,” she said. But the murders “changed our way of life at FSU. … I followed that case, day by day by day by day. I lived through the horror of it, and I just became interested in the whole process and the whole way it played out.”
Even then, though, she “anticipated more of a career on the non-litigation side.”
Right out of law school, she landed a job doing criminal appeals in the attorney general’s office. Four months later she was recruited to do the same thing at the Palm Beach state attorney’s office. “And I was hooked.”
She stayed as a prosecutor for 19 years.
Johnson did appeals for a short time, then “went the traditional route” — moving as a prosecutor from county court traffic cases to be one of the felony trial division chiefs.
In 1996, incoming state attorney Barry Krischer asked her to start the office’s domestic violence division.
“At the time, I had no interest, no knowledge, no nothing about domestic violence,” she said. A lot of what they did was education — of the police, victim advocates and themselves.
“It’s a very challenging field, but it’s also very rewarding because we came a long way in learning how to prosecute them and learning how to deal with the victims of domestic violence so as not to alienate them,” she said. “It eventually led to the court system creating the domestic violence division.”
Palm Beach Circuit Judge Krista Marx worked with Johnson in the state attorney’s office.
“She is just well-intentioned and a really good person,” Marx said. “It wasn’t about stacking up convictions but making sure that she really understood what the case was about and that all parties were treated fairly.”
Johnson said she loved her work but after 18 years “reached the stage where I was ready to move on and do something else.”
She applied to the Judicial Nominating Commission. She got nominated but not appointed. She immediately turned around and ran and was elected.
She took the bench in 2003, starting off in the criminal division. She later transferred to civil and in 2009 to the North County Courthouse where she handles a 50-50 split of civil and criminal cases.
It gives her a welcome, and hectic, variety.
“I don’t think you can ever really anticipate the wide variety of issues that you see in county court,” she said. “It really is something new and different every single day. I don’t think you can foresee the things that come up before you.”
The range of cases covers criminal and civil nonjury trials and motions, traffic cases including fatalities and serious injuries, animal and marine infractions, and small claims. At least one had the potential for far-reaching impact.
In 2009, Johnson handled the “sagging pants” case. That was a challenge to a Riviera Beach ordinance making it illegal to wear pants low enough to show skin or underwear.
“It was a wildly fascinating case involving constitutional law issues,” she said. “We went through fashion through the ages. … It really revolved around the 14th Amendment and whether or not there is a liberty of choice in matters of dress and personal appearance.”
The ordinance was approved by more than 70 percent of the city’s voters, but Johnson found it unconstitutional.
As the lone judge at the North County facility, Johnson said she often has “400 or 500 cases set on Wednesday morning.”
Handling the load requires extremely effective case management skills, she said.
“We know that people have jobs to go to,” she said. “We try to run things efficiently and be on time as much as possible because we have a very busy division. We try to stagger them. We try to move them as quickly as possible. These aren’t people in chains when you go back to jail people. These are people going on to work.”
Expediency means hearing a lot of verbal motions and keeping the severity of the cases in perspective.
“I kind of take things as they come,” she said. “We are not dealing with first-degree murderers. Most of the people that appear in front of me aren’t bad people with huge criminal records. They’re people who made one mistake. They’re knuckleheads. They’re not bad guys.”