Marquette Courtroom Jogs Judge's NMU Memory

Charles "Chuck" Johnson is pictured lower left in the 1975 yearbook photo and as a presiding judge in the same courtroom earlier this month. The yearbook photo shows (front row L to R): Johnson, president of the Pre-Law Society; John Rogers; and Doug Courtney. Back Row L-R: Jeff Swarbich, vice president; Dennis Baldinelli; Greg Rose; Liz Polloch, Secretary; Dick Ralph; Dr. John Ashby, Adviser; Larry Ziehm; Jeff Wellman; and Dave Reinhard.

Northern Michigan University alumnus and retired Emmet County Circuit Judge Charles Johnson of Petoskey recently donned his robe again to preside over a July jury trial at the Marquette County Courthouse. He is one of two grant-funded visiting judges helping to clear the county's backlog of criminal cases. As Johnson sat behind the bench in the historic courtroom, which also served as a pivotal location in the book and film “Anatomy of a Murder,” he developed a sense of déjà vu.

“My memory bank told me I had been there before, and I figured it had to be when I was a student at Northern,” Johnson said. “Then I recalled being in the NMU Pre-Law Society and seeing a photo of our group somewhere. I went home and dug out my musty old 1975 yearbook. Sure enough, we were pictured in the very same location. Never would I have imagined back then that I would return to that beautiful courtroom almost 50 years later as the presiding judge for a criminal trial.”

Johnson said Marquette County's caseload initially swelled after one of its two circuit judges retired and the position remained unfilled after a routine analysis determined that a second judge was no longer needed. The earlier stages of the pandemic exacerbated the situation because no jury trials could be held. While the county now has two circuit court judges again, Johnson was approached to help alleviate the previous backlog.

“Occasionally, retired judges such as myself get asked to assist on a fill-in basis,” he said. “I was eager to accept this opportunity because I love Marquette, and my wife Lynette and I are avid mountain bikers and downhill skiers. I signed up to do four weeks of criminal trials—one week each in July, August, September and October. Another judge is also doing four weeks. They're plugging in criminal jury trials for us to preside over during those periods.”

When he enrolled as a student at Northern, Johnson originally planned to follow in his father's footsteps and become a dentist, but soon determined that was not the right fit. It was a criminal law class taught by local attorney Tom Casselman that Johnson credits with sparking his interest in the legal profession and leading him to switch his major to political science. He also served as president of the Pre-Law Society student organization—the same group whose visit to the Marquette County Courthouse was documented in the 1975 yearbook photo that validated Johnson's sense of familiarity as he sat behind the bench in July.

“I loved Northern because of the small class sizes, and it was great that you could travel a short distance out of town and be in the wilderness,” he said. “When I was growing up in Lansing, my family would go camping in the U.P. I liked hiking and seeing the sights. I skied at [the former] Cliff's Ridge while I was a student and became a mountain biker later in life. We really enjoy the trails around Marquette.”

After graduating from NMU, Johnson attended Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, then took and passed the bar exam. He practiced law for 16 years with a firm in the Petoskey-Harbor Springs area, where he had worked summer jobs during college. When a new 57th circuit was created for Emmet County, he successfully campaigned to become its first judge and was re-elected unopposed four times after that.

After 26 years in the role, Johnson retired in 2020. He opted to re-engage professionally for a temporary assignment in Marquette because of his affinity for the city and its abundant recreational opportunities. 

Prepared By

Kristi Evans
News Director

Categories: Alumni