PENDLETON — Judge William D. Johnson stood in the rotunda at the Nixyaawii Governance Center and raised his right hand.
This wasn’t the first time for Johnson. He was swearing in for his fourth 10-year-term as chief judge of the Umatilla Tribal Court. The 90,635-square-foot governance center where he stood on Wednesday afternoon didn’t even exist the first time he took the oath.
Johnson is the first member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation to graduate from law school or to pass the Oregon Bar. Before the ceremony, he agreed to sit down and talk about his long career and his passion for tribal law.
He traces his interest in law to a magazine story he read in the early 1970s.
“I saw a Newsweek article about Indian lawyers,” Johnson recalled. “It said there were only two in the whole nation at the time. I saw that and thought, ‘I could do that.’”
The Pendleton High School graduate did his undergrad work at Oregon State University and then studied law at the University of Oregon.
Johnson runs through his bio in an understated way.
After a stint as a prosecutor for Lane County, he headed back home to practice as an attorney. Still in his 20s, he simultaneously served as both chairman of the CTUIR Board of Trustees and chairman of the CTUIR General Council — the only tribal member ever to do that.
In 1980, he began serving as associate judge in the Umatilla Tribal Court and then acting chief judge. His first term as chief judge began in 1988.
A few accomplishments during Johnson’s time as chief judge especially stand out.
In 2011, at Johnson’s urging, the CTUIR Board of Trustees voted to create an independent judiciary with separation of powers. This was a necessary move, he said, that ensured that the court was autonomous from tribal government.
Also under Johnson’s guidance, the Umatilla tribal court was one of the first tribes to participate in a pilot program to prosecute non-Indians for domestic violence against Indians on the reservation. When the Violence Against Women Act was reauthorized in 2013, it included new provisions addressing violence against Native women by restoring tribal jurisdiction over non-Native perpetrators of domestic violence that occurred on tribal land. In 2014, the CTUIR was one of only three tribes initially allowed to participate in the program. Domestic violence is the only crime for which non-Indians currently can be prosecuted, though the court does preside over civil cases involving non-Indians.
Johnson, whose Indian name is Gray Wolf, described his judicial style in the courtroom as “casual.”
“I like to inject some humor to relieve stress, because it’s pretty stressful for a lot of people,” he said. “I like to think that I am fair, but not a pushover. I listen pretty well.”
His courtroom is small and similar in appearance to non-tribal courtrooms. He sits at the bench backdropped by three flags: CTUIR, Oregon and the United States. His docket is crowded as he presides over everything from criminal cases to juvenile cases, traffic infractions or contract disputes.
Tribal Judge Dave Gallaher described Johnson’s courtroom demeanor.
“He’s imposing, but very courteous and respectful,” Gallaher said. “He garners a lot of respect.”
Johnson said he knows many of the people who come into his courtroom. Unlike non-Indian judges, he considers tribal culture in meting out punishment to defendants and litigants.
Many of the codes are similar to federal laws, such as the vehicle code.
“We can and do consider customs and traditions of the Tribe,” he said. “It’s important to us to honor and abide our elders’ traditions. That’s how we stay Indian.”
CTUIR members have treaty hunting and fishing rights, but if they break the tribal fish and wildlife code (for example hunting from a vehicle or using commercial fishing gear in certain areas), they are sanctioned. If the crime is bad enough, the person can even lose the right to hunt or fish.
“We are the only court that can suspend treaty hunting and fishing rights as a punishment,” Johnson said. “I don’t like doing it, but I’ve done it a few times.”
Johnson put aside thoughts of the courtroom to don his robe for the swearing-in ceremony. He walked the 100-or-so yards from his office to the building’s drum-shaped central area.
The ceremony was a simple affair. Two tribal elders had died this week, and in keeping with tradition, the event stayed low-key without much pomp or the usual cake celebration afterwards.
Johnson raised his right hand and swore the oath.
“I, William D. Johnson, do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution and laws of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and the Constitution of the United States and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge the duties of chief judge of the Tribal Court of the Confederated Tribes, respecting and honoring the tribal customs and traditions of the people of the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla Tribes.”
Watching from the circular sidelines with colleagues, family and friends was Johnson’s son. Matthew Johnson, a CTUIR attorney in his own right, wore a serious expression as he listened to his father swear the oath and thank his mentors, colleagues, family and community.
Afterward, Matt grinned when asked about growing up with a judge for a dad.
“It comes very naturally to him,” he said. “I was definitely on the receiving end of many lectures growing up.”
Looking back from the passage of years, he acknowledged his father’s skillfulness at rendering opinions.
“He is a very fair and tolerant person,” Matt said. “He does his best to take all the relevant factors into account.”
The CTUIR Board of Trustees passed a resolution on April 29 to reappoint the chief judge.
Johnson said his fourth term will likely be his last, though he won’t say for sure.
“I love what I do,” he said. “It’s for my own tribe. I can’t imagine not doing it.”