Meet The Incumbent
Judge Eric Johnson
They say cats have nine lives, but Judge Eric Johnson has reinvented himself within his profession so often, and with so many accomplishments, he might be one of those rare humans who has a little feline in him. Appointed as judge in May 2015 by Governor Brian Sandoval, before his seating on the bench last year this UNLV Boyd School of Law grad spent 32 years as an attorney in a head-spinning number of forms: with the U.S. Department of Justice as part of its employment program for honor law graduates; as a Special Attorney with the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section; and as Assistant U.S. States Attorney with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Nevada, where for a decade he led the Organized Crime Strike Force, and for 2 years he was chief of the entire crime division.
Johnson’s strong suits are varied and are concentrated in areas requiring a strong mind and voice to defend those who need it most: children; victims of mob and gang violence; guns. His intellect and ethics are matched by his compassion and desire to share knowledge with others, which has led him to be a regular instructor of trial advocacy and strategy at the Department of Justice’s National Advocacy Center, among other posts.
Below he shares with Vegas Legal Magazine what inspires him and drives him…and, he reveals that sometimes, a few tears are just what you need to know your defense is on the right track.
Vegas Legal Magazine: What does being a judge mean to you?
Judge Eric Johnson: Prior to my appointment to the bench last May, I was a prosecutor in Southern Nevada for almost 32 years with the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Attorney’s Office. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to prosecute and try a wide breath of cases involving domestic and international organized crime, RICO, murder and violent crimes, narcotics, money laundering, terrorism, corruption, and casino and complex fraud. I’d also spent the last 12 years with the U.S. Attorney’s Office as chief of the Strike Force, and then as chief of the Criminal Division for the state. This allowed me to work with local, state and federal law enforcement and prosecution offices to push initiatives to more effectively prosecute and keep guns out of the hands of violent criminals and drug traffickers, to target and prosecute the leadership and most violent members of street and prison gangs, and to successfully indict child exploitation cases involving child pornography and the trafficking of children for prostitution.
I feel that my experiences in dealing with complex litigation and working with victims and witnesses of crime—the diverse cultures of our community and federal, state and local agencies and businesses—trained me in applying the law, and exposed me to virtually all aspects of our community. My work has given me an understanding of different people and their motivations, fears and hopes; and, most importantly, it has shown me the importance of our justice system in our community.
In coming to the bench I wanted to use this background to make a positive impact in the state justice system and our community. I have been in Southern Nevada for the last 32 years and I have grown as an attorney as the community has grown in size and complexity. This is my home and community, and I believe through my position as a district court judge, I can make a meaningful contribution to our community.
VLM: What was the most memorable case you tried as an attorney before taking the bench?
JJ: That is a tough one to narrow down. The Herbie Blitzstein RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) murder trial was the last of the old La Cosa Nostra mob cases in Las Vegas. Blitzstein was Tony “The Ant” Spilotro’s chief lieutenant before Spilotro was killed, and ultimately Blitzstein also met with an untimely death.
There was the U.S. v. Murray Wilson trial where the defendant brought in Russian mob members out of Brighton Beach in New York to do a credit marker scheme out of the old Dunes. The father of our main witness in that case tried to extort money from the defendant to send his son to Israel for the trial, which definitely did not help the credibility of our witness.
Then there was the U.S. v. Chun Lok trial where members of a Chinese Triad set up a false shuffle cheat at three casinos, and our insider witness disappeared before trial. I remember a defense attorney commenting to me before trial that no one had won a cheating case without a cheating device or an insider. I found that gratifying when we eventually convicted everyone.
U.S. v. Bobby Mitchell was another trial where we proved that a boxing manager was able to fix fights to attempt to get his fighter a shot at a heavyweight title fight. The chairman of the Nevada State Athletic Commission testified that he thought the fight we charged was a good fight, but we proved to the jury it wasn’t, and ESPN featured the case on its program “Over the Line.”
But I would have to say the most memorable trial for me was U.S. v. Steve Homick. This case had everything. It involved a criminal organization that perpetrated at least three different murder episodes (including the first triple homicide in southern Nevada) and what became known as the “Ninja” or “Yom Kippur Murders” in southern California. In addition to the murders, the group was involved in the trafficking of narcotics and arson for profit. I and my co-counsel took over the case about one month before trial. The trial involved over 100 witnesses from numerous states and included wiretap evidence, surveillance testimony, handwriting comparison, and tool-marking forensics. Our witnesses ranged from a movie and television curator from I believe University of Southern California—who discussed the hair-combing habits of Kookie on the TV show 77 Sunset Strip to explain some code the defendants used in one of the murders—to a prior Penthouse magazine Pet of the Month who fortunately awoke at the start of an arson of the house where she was sleeping and got out the other 20 occupants before the building completely burned.
The trial started the Monday after Thanksgiving and went nonstop except for Christmas, Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day, through the end of January. The murders and crimes were horrific and I still remember three members of the jury crying as I gave my opening. For a trial attorney, that is a good start to a trial.
VLM: It feels somewhat impossible to top what you just explained, but if you can answer this, what’s been the most memorable case you’ve tried as a judge?
JJ: I have had two cases that I think were particularly memorable since coming on the bench just 11 months ago.
In State v. McClinton, the defendant was charged with sexually assaulting the 14-year-old daughter of his girlfriend. What made the case significant was that the defendant had been incarcerated for almost 6 years without a trial. The defendant had gone through nine attorneys during that time and kept demanding more continuances because his attorneys were not trying his case the way he believed the case should be tried. I said the attorney merry-go-round was over and he was going to trial as soon as possible. He was difficult to control and frequently made outbursts in court. I even had a closed-circuit video set up in a room separate from the court because I anticipated the defendant being belligerent in front of the jury. Ultimately, I talked the defendant through the trial with minimal issues. However, State v. Tiaffay was my most prominent trial. It was a first-degree murder trial I presided over within the first few months on the bench and it involved a firefighter who hired a homeless man to kill his estranged wife with a hammer. The trial lasted 2 weeks and included a penalty phase where both the victim’s and defendant’s family spoke. The homeless man also testified against the defendant. It was a very emotional trial. The jury took a long time deliberating, I think, because they had a hard time grasping why or how anyone could commit the crimes charged. The media heavily covered the case and CBS’s 48 Hours and NBC’s Dateline both did episodes about it.
VLM: Favorite and least favorite thing about being a judge.
JJ: I know my department staff would want me to say my most favorite thing about being a judge is working with them. It is true that I am blessed with a great support staff. My JEA Kelly came with me from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. I have a great courtroom clerk, Linda, who clerked for Judge Mosely. I have been lucky to find my law clerk, Josie; court recorder, Amber; and marshal, Bruce.
However, since coming on the bench, I have really appreciated the chance to look at new legal issues and research and write orders that the attorneys for the cases and the bar hopefully find valuable. Last year, I really appreciated the chance to consider the scope of the Nevada constitution’s provision allowing voter recall of public officials, and the application of the Nevada Supreme Court’s Hallmark decision to the current state of biomechanical engineering science.
As for my least favorite thing, I am always saddened when I sentence defendants to probation rather than prison in hopes that they will truly try to make changes in their lives, and a month or two later they are back before me on a probation violation. We can’t just send defendants to prison and hope they don’t commit new crimes when they get out. We have to find a way to break their dependence on drugs or deal with their lack of employment or mental health issues. But when the defendant makes no effort to take these steps on their own and violates probation, I am always disappointed to be back having to consider the need to send them to prison.
VLM: Have you ever experienced a situation where you had to support a legal position that conflicted with your personal beliefs?
JJ: Fortunately, in my work as a prosecutor I was protecting the public from criminals and didn’t have to deal with defending people whose conduct I may have found personally abhorrent. I have a real appreciation for many of the defense attorneys I have dealt with both as a prosecutor and a judge and the work they do defending their clients and assuring their clients’ rights are upheld regardless of who they may be or what they may have done. Our criminal justice system could not work, and the public would lose confidence in the decisions of our criminal courts, without these attorneys making sure the system works for everyone.
VLM: Has there ever been a situation that tested the limits of your patience? What is your advice for a situation like that?
JJ: Every now and then my patience is challenged when attorneys get into arguments between themselves in court. I cut off such conduct fast and make sure the attorneys talk to me and not fight with each other. To calm emotions, I have added a message from Thomas Jefferson on each counsel’s tables, saying “If angry count to 10. If very angry count to 100.”
VLM: Do you have any attorney pet peeves?
JJ: I am unimpressed receiving courtesy binders of exhibits with minimal citation references in the briefs, and having attorneys expect me to find whatever they are referring to in the binders. When I am in trial, I dislike attorneys spending considerable time eliciting testimony that has no purpose with proving their case or dealing with the defendant’s defenses. It is hard to see where attorneys may be going with a witness’ testimony, and I hate to do anything that may throw off an attorney’s strategy or considered trial plan. But I am annoyed when at the end of a trial, I look back and see large and time-consuming portions of testimony that clearly had no impact on a party’s trial strategy. Finally, too often I see attorneys filing (at the last minute) oppositions, replies and supplemental briefs, [sometimes] the night before the hearing or even the morning of.
VLM: What’s your best piece of advice for litigants or attorneys?
JJ: I think the judges you interview say this over and over, but it is the key to success in the courtroom, and that is “be prepared.” When I do continuing legal education (CLE) talks, I always tell attorneys to think about how they intend to get in every piece of evidence and be prepared if the other side just doesn’t let the evidence in. Attorneys always seem to be shocked when they offer something and the other side objects on foundation. Attorneys, even veterans, need to go back and look at the foundational questions. Attorneys frequently don’t know what or how to get in business records or impeach a witness with prior testimony. They often respond to objections saying, obviously, the evidence or testimony is accurate and they could establish foundation but they are trying to save time. I am all in favor of saving time, but foundation is foundation and parties need to be able to meet the requirements of the rules of evidence if the other side puts them to the task.
VLM: What is your passion outside of the law?
JJ: I have a passion for woodworking that I never seem to have time to realize. I regularly attend Colonial Williamsburg’s woodworking conference every year and have lots of good intentions but never get as far as I would like with projects. However, at my very first civil motions calendar I did appreciate an attorney asking to admit biomechanical evidence and arguing I should admit it because “the human body is like piece of oak with specific dimensions.” I remember explaining that not all oak was alike and its strength depended on its grain, and any flaws and other factors. I think the attorney wished by the end he had used another example. My wife, Susan, and I also have taken up running in the last 5 years. We have used this as an opportunity to go on trips together and separately to some places we probably would have never just gone to, such as Rio de Janeiro; Berlin; Tromsø, Norway; and Seoul, Korea.
VLM: Have to ask: What do you love most about Vegas?
JJ: I know you want me to say the shows or casinos or the fantastic natural features around us, but I really appreciate the breath of the law here. I have often told people that Las Vegas has the presence of a small city but with large city or international business and legal challenges. So much cash passes through our casinos, so many domestic and international travelers come through our airports and hotels. We have had to deal with the mob, and emerging organized crime organization. We have had to combat massive fraud, international money laundering, gangs, and violent crime. The diversity and significance of the legal work we do here is recognized with the growing presence of large domestic and international law firms operating here. But on a more personal level, I have loved our time with our kids and all the opportunities Southern Nevada has offered them through Green Valley High School and club sports programs.