Judge Johnstone exemplified morality, humility

Judge Edward H. Johnstone's landmark ruling led to the 1980 reform of Kentucky's barbaric prisons.

His trademarks were compassion and humility — traits that we could use more of in today's public arena.

Judge Johnstone, who died last month at 91, presided over federal courts in Louisville and points west for 30 years without using a gavel.

His influence will long be felt in his rulings and precedents, and also in the people he inspired. Judge Johnstone's eulogies were replete with affection for a man who afforded dignity and respect to the lowliest of criminals because our Constitution guarantees equality, but also because he believed that innate goodness resided in everyone.

One of his former clerks told The Courier-Journal's Andrew Wolfson that Judge Johnstone often said, "There is no such thing as horrible people, there are good people who do horrible things."

Judge Johnstone's belief in humanity survived witnessing the worst brutality and violence. As a young infantry sergeant, he won medals for his bravery in the Battle of the Bulge and helped liberate the Nazi death camp at Dachau.

Back home in Princeton and standing a lanky 6-feet-4, he became a crack lawyer and courthouse favorite known as Big Ed.

Shortly after being appointed to the federal bench in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter, he presided over a lawsuit brought by Kentucky inmates and helped forge an agreement that forced the state to spend $120 million to improve its prisons, including creation of rehabilitation opportunities, and later requiring similar rights for women prisoners.

Judge Johnstone visited Kentucky's prisons unannounced to monitor conditions. In a 1980 column, The Courier-Journal's John Fil iatreau described how, when Johnstone "rolled up his sleeves, climbed through a hole in a reformatory cell house wall and slogged around in ankle-deep raw sewage," prisoners cheered.

Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd, who clerked for Judge Johnstone, eulogized him as Kentucky's "greatest trial judge of the 20th century" who had "an innate understanding of the drama of the courtroom, the art of cross-examination, the credibility of witnesses and the motivations of jurors.

"But his greatest legal legacy — reform of the prison system in Kentucky — was a result of his powerful moral example," said Shepherd. "The governor did not want to have to look Judge Johnstone in the eye and be remembered as the politician who failed to rise to the challenge. ... Judge Johnstone brought out the very best in everyone."

His successor, U.S. District Judge Thomas B. Russell, said Judge Johnstone's decisions "set a standard of excellence" that show how the law can "make society a better place for all of our citizens."