Monday, March 27, 2023
March 27, 2023

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Oregon judge went from streets to the bench

Orphan, former homeless kid joined court in 2022

3 Photos
Douglas County Circuit Court Judge Robert Johnson poses inside his chambers in Roseburg, Ore.
Douglas County Circuit Court Judge Robert Johnson poses inside his chambers in Roseburg, Ore. (michael sullivan/The News-Review) Photo Gallery

ROSEBURG, Ore. — Growing up, Robert Johnson didn’t have a lot. The son of heroin addicts, he and his younger brother, Daniel, were frequently homeless. They often ate out of trash cans and slept under the stars. While they spent the majority of their time in North Portland, they also lived in Southern California.

“I remember one time, when we were living in L.A., we slept under a bridge,” he said. “You know those steep inclines under bridges — and the flat area on top that’s right under the bridge — I remember laying up there and watching the road as it moved 6 inches above my face. At the time, I thought it was the coolest thing.

“It’s amazing how resilient kids are.”

Johnson’s housing situation and home life gradually improved over the years, after his mom “got clean.” He went to high school, played basketball and struggled to graduate. But he did it.

In 2002, he graduated No. 321 out of 325 in his class at Lincoln High School in Portland.

“There is no way I should have been passed,” he said, “but I think someone did me a favor.”

With a 1.75 GPA, he left school with a secret that wouldn’t be revealed until a few years later.

In 2004, at the age of 20, Johnson lost both of his parents. His dad died in April; his mom passed three months later. Orphaned, Johnson reverted to his street skills to survive.

“We lost our low-income housing eligibility, so I started sleeping in my car near the Fred Meyer where I worked in Portland,” he said. “It was a ’73 Buick I parked in a parking garage.”

Johnson recalled that people would check on him to make sure he was OK.

“I think they thought I was trying to gas myself because I kept turning on the car,” he said. “I was only trying to stay warm.”

When Johnson wasn’t at work, he would likely be found on a court.

“Basketball is the only escape I had,” he said.

Johnson was playing ball at a park in Portland when his shot at destiny arrived.

“A guy came up and said, ‘Have you thought about playing ball?’” he recalled.

The guy was Jerry Walker, an assistant basketball coach at Umpqua Community College. He contacted a mentor of Johnson’s, and things rapidly moved from there.

“I wanted to play ball but not go to school,” Johnson said. “He forced me into a car — that was literally moving — and drove me to Roseburg. … I kept thinking, ‘Why is this happening?’ and decided to give it a shot.”

Johnson arrived on campus in 2006. He performed well on the court and in his classes. College life was good. Despite earning stellar grades, the secret from his past finally revealed itself.

‘Can you read?’

While working with a study buddy for a biology class, Johnson’s inability to read came to light. Prior to his arrival at Umpqua, testing at Portland Community College showed he had a third-grade reading level.

“I always got around it by listening and then anticipating what would come next. I listened to everything my teachers said and filed it all up here,” he said, pointing to his head. “My study partner read something from a book, and what I was anticipating next was not in there at all.

“She looked at me and said, ‘Can you read?’ I remember putting my face in my hands and just bawling.”

Johnson was later diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He worked through his challenges and became an Umpqua graduate in 2008 — this time with a 3.88 GPA. He also received the college’s Graduate of the Year award.

As for the study partner who helped him, her name is Krista. He married her.

After community college, Johnson didn’t have a lot of direction.

“All I knew how to do was hustle,” he said. “I was gonna sell cars at Clint Newell (Auto Group).”

Things changed when he received a packet in the mail for the Ford Scholars program through the Ford Family Foundation. It meant he could finish college at no cost. He chose to attend Portland State University.

Upon finishing his studies in 2011, he was accepted into the University of Oregon School of Law, from which he earned a degree in 2014.

Johnson returned to Roseburg, briefly working as a law clerk with the Douglas County Circuit Court, and then went to work as an attorney in 2016 and started a family.

In March 2022, he decided to become more deeply connected to his community. He ran for Douglas County Circuit Court judge Position 4 and won the election in May. He started his new job in June.

Now, whether he is in a court or on one, his goal is to serve as an inspiration for others.

“At my core, I care about people. That’s what motivates me,” Johnson said. “If we aren’t working every day to make this place better for others, what are we doing?”