By Ben McNeely
Jim Johnson, former state legislator and longtime Cabarrus County criminal defense attorney, died Sunday at his home. He was 73.
Johnson was a lion in the legal community in Cabarrus County, having practiced law in Concord for almost 50 years. He also represented the county in the General Assembly — three terms in the House and three terms in the Senate — and was instrumental in recruiting Philip Morris to Concord.
Fellow attorneys remember him as the dean of the trial bar in Cabarrus County — an excellent criminal defense attorney who was not afraid to follow his beliefs.
“He was very independent-minded and wasn’t afraid to go against the flow,” said Judge Clarence Horton, who practiced law with Johnson in the 1960s. “He brought a little bit of the old school of law practice to the courtroom.”
Jim Davis, Johnson’s first law partner in Concord and a semi-retired superior court judge, said he and Johnson would take on a lot of pro bono work because they believed everyone “was entitled to representation, no matter the charges.”
“We would sit down at the end of the year and cross off $20,000 or $30,000 in fees off the books because we knew we wouldn’t get paid for it,” Davis said.
“If he though his client was right, he would represent them just the same,” said Horton, who also practiced law with Johnson.
Johnson was an excellent orator, Davis said, capturing the jury’s attention.
“At the end of the trial, you knew he had the jury in his pocket after that,” Davis said.
He took those same skills as a public speaker into his church, Central Methodist in Concord, when he taught Sunday school. Davis and Johnson taught a class together.
“He taught the Bible and applied it to everyday life,” Davis said.
In the General Assembly, Johnson was well-liked by his fellow lawmakers, said Sandy Sands, an attorney with Womble Carlyle in Raleigh who served with Johnson in the Senate.
“He was able to push through local issues, things that Republicans weren’t normally able to do at that time, because he was willing to work with anybody,” Sands said.
When times got tense in the legislature, Johnson would often draw cartoons to show just how silly lawmakers were being, Sands said.
“It really helped to defuse the situation,” Sands said.
Johnson was the Senate’s war historian, Sands said, and he kept various armaments at his home off of N.C. 73 near Concord.
Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, the Republican incumbent in the N.C. Senate District 36 seat, said he was “shell-shocked” when he heard the news about Johnson’s death.
Democratic voters named Johnson as their candidate in the May primary to run against Hartsell for the District 36 senate seat in November.
Hartsell said Johnson was very active in developing the Republican Party in Cabarrus County during the 1960s and was instrumental in recruiting Philip Morris to Concord.
“He was something of a maverick at times,” Hartsell said. “I guess that’s where I learned it.”
Johnson tried to recruit Hartsell to run for the N.C. House in 1986, Hartsell said, but he declined. Later, Hartsell defeated Johnson for his Senate seat in 1990.
“I consider him a good friend,” Hartsell said. “We always got along well, even if we disagreed, in the lawyerly way, we disagreed agreeably.”
County Commission chairman Jay White said Jim Johnson had been a part of the Cabarrus legal community for almost 50 years.
“He was a very good litigator. He cast a long shadow in the courthouse,” White said.
Johnson is survived by his wife, District Court judge Donna Johnson; son, James Johnson III, who is a Mount Pleasant town commissioner; and daughters, Kay Lynn and Jen Cherise. Funeral arrangements are incomplete, but a service is expected later in the week.
• Contact reporter Ben McNeely: 704-789-9131.