Cecil Ernest Johnson (1888–1955)

Cecil E. Johnson practiced law in southwestern Arkansas for much of his life, except for fourteen years in the judiciary—four of them during the depths of the Great Depression, when he was chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. Johnson had no formal education beyond high school but was admitted to the bar at the age of twenty-three after studying under an attorney. He was elected chancery judge at the age of thirty-three, appointed chief justice at the age of forty-five, and elected as chief justice a year later.

Cecil Ernest Johnson was born on July 26, 1888, in Lockesburg (Sevier County), one of four children of John Frank Johnson and Martha Adelia Collins Johnson, who were farmers. He was admitted to the bar in 1909 and opened a law office in Murfreesboro (Pike County). He married Pearl E. Harrison, a native of Mississippi. They reared three children.

In 1922, upon the retirement of Judge J. D. Shaver, he was elected chancellor of the Sixth Chancery District and reelected in 1928. When Chief Justice Jesse C. Hart died in March 1933, Governor J. Marion Futrell appointed Judge Johnson to fill the seat until the next election, in 1934. Johnson ran for the seat in 1934 and was elected to complete the eight-year term, which would conclude in January 1937. His tenure lasted three years and nine months.

Although he had no law degree or college training, Johnson was admired for his legal wisdom and for his insistence upon reading constitutions as they were written rather than searching for a plausible theory for explaining why the constitution—federal or state—did not mean what it said. Arkansans suffered more in the Great Depression than people in any other state, partly owing to decimation from both floods and drought but also to misguided state policies that emptied the state treasury. By 1933, when Johnson joined the Supreme Court, Arkansas could not make payments on its enormous debt, could not operate its schools for a full school year, and, unlike other states, could not match federal relief funds such as commodities. Schools closed or else simply issued teachers and administrators county scrip—IOUs. In a few places, under an emergency act of the Arkansas General Assembly in 1931, school districts leased school buildings free to teachers as independent agents, who would teach the children of parents who would agree to pay a small tuition fee—typically ten dollars a month per child. In Randolph County, a father of two small children refused to pay the twenty-dollar-a-month tuition for his children but wanted them educated anyway. The district said his kids could be taught only if he put the money in escrow. He sued, and the case, Burrow v. Pocahontas School District, reached the Arkansas Supreme Court in March 1935.

A trial judge had ruled that Burrow had to pay—lose his escrow—although special federal aid to Arkansas schools to pick up the slack from the absence of state funding had reduced his payment a little. The Arkansas Supreme Court rejected the father’s claim, but Chief Justice Johnson dissented, alone. Article 14, Section 1, of the Arkansas Constitution, he said, was clear and unambiguous: The state of Arkansas must forever and always provide a free and equal education to every child in the state. It provides no exceptions for man-made emergencies. The education mandate of the constitution and Johnson’s reasoning would be cited in much-larger cases in the twenty-first century—that the state must provide a suitable, free, and equal education for every child.

Much of the Supreme Court’s docket in the Depression years was occupied by suits involving life and casualty insurance companies, utilities (principally the Arkansas Power and Light Company), railroads, and oil and gas companies. Most had to do with tort claims over injuries or services. For some judges, like Johnson, a section of the Arkansas Constitution’s declaration of individual rights was always applicable: “Every person is entitled to a certain remedy in the laws for all injuries or wrongs he may receive in his person, property, or character; he ought to obtain justice freely, and without purchase, completely, and without denial, promptly, and without delay, conformably to the laws.” The argument over injury claims continues to rage in the legislature and in the courts in battles over “tort reform”—limiting payments that entities like nursing homes must make to pay for physical or economic injuries to people.

Johnson left the court in January 1937 and began practicing law in Little Rock (Pulaski County). He owned and continued to manage extensive farm holdings in southwestern Arkansas and was president of the Bank of Delight in Delight (Pike County) for forty years.

In 1941, he moved to Ashdown (Little River County) and practiced in partnership with a son, Cecil E. Johnson Jr., until his death on April 19, 1955. He is buried in Wright’s Chapel Cemetery in the Cowlingsville (Sevier County) community southeast of Lockesburg.

For additional information:
“C. E. Johnson, Chief Justice in 1930s, Dies.” Arkansas Gazette, April 21, 1955, p. 5B.

“Judge C. E. Johnson.” Arkansas Law Review 9 (1954–1955): 346.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated: 04/22/2022

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