Former Idaho Supreme Court Justice And Poet, Byron Johnson Dies At 75

Dec 10, 2012

Sunday we learned that former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Byron Johnson passed away after a battle with cancer.

He was a lawyer and a political mover and shaker.  But in his heart, Byron Johnson was a poet.  “I think that poetry is a vehicle that I have used to deal with feelings I have that are hard to resolve,” he once said.

I interviewed Johnson in May, after his memoir “Poetic Justice” came out.  We talked about his eleven years on the Idaho Supreme Court, where he heard some 1,500 legal cases. 

“I felt that following precedent was the key thing that judges need to do.  Once a rule has been established, don’t change it next week, but keep it and adhere to it and try to follow it," he said. "I would say of all the things that I encountered on the court, that was the most important to me to make sure that I was following precedent if there was precedent and if not, we’d have to carefully make a new precedent.”

His wife of 28 years, Patricia Young, says he wasn’t just on the state Supreme Court, he transformed it.  She says he brought to the court the same dedication and enthusiasm that he brought to all the positions he held throughout his life.

“He brought mediation to the Supreme Court, appellate mediation, he transformed the technology," she said. "He was the first justice to have a computer.  He brought it from his private practice and went on to have retreats to develop the statewide computer system that the court currently has, he was just amazing at the breath of things he was involved in.”

Young says her husband was active politically, active in the community, and was something of a whirlwind.  “So, there’s just so many areas and in so many ways that he touched people and that he’s going to be missed.”

His memoir, Poetic Justice, covers history, both his own and some of Idaho’s as well.  And the book, which he wrote for his children and grandchildren, is full of his poetry. 

We talked about his very first poem, a limerick that he wrote at age 10 about his pet cat.

I once had a cat named Candy

Whose hair was exceedingly sandy

When a bird flew too near, she slapped him on the ear

Oh what a feast, was a dandy

Johnson said he wrote an enormous volume of poetry.  For every poem that was published, he said there were a hundred others that no one else saw.  “I think that everyone needs to have a passion," he explained. "I have several passions, but poetry is among the most important of them and it has been a sustenance for me and I hope that it passes on to people some of the enthusiasm that I have for it.”

During our interview, I asked him to read one of his poems called “My Soul Is Flowing in this River.”  He said it was a poem about the South Fork of the Payette above Lowman.  He would spend a month each winter at Grand Jean, alone, soaking in the hot springs. 

My Soul Is Flowing In This River

it echoes in the river’s roar

rolling over rocks worn smooth

by time’s eternal rush

bubbling with laughter

of afternoons on its beaches

glistening with the pleasure

of cool evenings around a campfire near its waves

mother-father river

you baptized me

in the numbing chillness of your mornings

cuddled me

in the rumble of your nights

taught me

the ways of fishes in your riffles

I love you

like the brother

I never had

like the lightness of the mid-day breeze

that touches the deepest places where I am

you are my refuge

And my strength

you give me peace

when trouble comes

you never fail

to wash my sins away

you’ll be there

when my body turns to dust

holding the essence of my being

in your everlasting flow

Byron Johnson died at home Sunday, at the age of 75.  He leaves behind his wife, four children and six grandchildren.  He didn’t want a memorial service, but his family and friends are planning what his wife calls a “raucous wake” to remember him.  That takes place January 6 at the Barber Park Events Center. 

Copyright 2012 Boise State Public Radio