ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Karl E. Johnson Jr., had an “unfailing belief that the U.S. government has behaved very badly toward all of our first citizens by stealing their land, their water and their culture – and he was trying to get that back.”
According to his wife of 22 years, Michelle Giger, that was largely what motivated Johnson to help establish a law firm that not only focused on Indian law, but on the recruitment and training of Native American lawyers and staff.
In addition to the firm he helped start, Johnson, Barnhouse & Keegan, he was an associate professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law, where he was twice selected as Outstanding Professor. Johnson was also the executive director of the Center for Civic Values, which sponsors mock trial programs for high school students, and he was a long-time board member of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.
Among his many accolades, Johnson was a recipient of the Keep the Dream Alive Award from the Dr. Martin Luther King Multicultural Council, the Outstanding Lawyer of Albuquerque Award from the Albuquerque Bar Association and the Pinnacle Award from the State Bar of New Mexico.
Johnson, the law firm’s managing partner from 2003-2017, retired about 18 months ago. He died June 3 from complications of lung cancer at age 71.
“One of the first things he did was sue the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California,” the agency that supplies water to Los Angeles and surrounding communities, Giger said. “They had built a tunnel through the San Jacinto Mountains that leaked so badly that it absolutely drained every drop of water from the Soboba band of Indians. They went from having orchards and farming to a situation where the only way some of the kids could take a shower was if they were on a sports team, because they had water at the high school.”
That state of affairs continued for decades, “but Karl finally won the case,” Giger said. “It took an act of Congress, literally, but he won that case and he got their water back.”
Giger called her late husband “a brilliant lawyer and a master negotiator” who possessed a deep, resonant speaking voice that commanded attention in the courtroom. He was also “a wonderful father and grandfather, was funny and he just lit up a room.”
In a social setting, if Johnson saw someone looking uncomfortable or standing alone, “he’d go up to that person and talk to them and make them feel like they were the most important person in the world,” she said. “He saw that as part of his role in life, to be a facilitator and negotiator and make people feel comfortable.”
Her husband was also a lifelong Democrat, champion of women’s rights and LGBTQ equality, a proponent of health care for all, and an environmentalist.
The consummate teacher, Johnson led by example, said Justin Solimon, a colleague at the law firm since 2013, which has since been renamed Barnhouse, Keegan, Solimon & West.
“He had such an optimism and enthusiasm for practicing law that it was almost frustrating for me because he liked very complicated, very dynamic and very difficult legal problems,” he said.
“There were times when I would seek out his advice, either looking for a magic solution, or even just sympathy; instead I would typically get a reminder of how fortunate I was to be working on such a difficult problem. He’d say, ‘Wow! That’s fascinating, you’re so lucky to be working on that. It will be a real victory to figure out how to solve this problem.'”
Another former law firm partner, Randolph Barnhouse, was a student at the UNM School of Law in 1980, when he first met Johnson, who was teaching there. “He was a teacher all his life. He would help people and guide them. He never gave you the answer, but he helped guide you to the answer.”
Johnson, he said, “was a remarkable person in the scope of his interests, in his ability to enjoy life, in his ability to stay calm and respectful and happy, even when dealing with the most difficult of problems.”
And he always treated people with respect, regardless if “they were adverse in litigation or had taken a position he didn’t agree with,” Barnhouse said.
Johnson grew up in Oklahoma and attended high school with now-presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, who was his debate partner at the time they won the 1966 Oklahoma State Championship.
A National Merit Scholar, Johnson graduated with a degree in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma, and subsequently graduated first in his law school class at the University of Oregon.
“He could have worked probably anywhere, but he chose as his first job after law school to work for DNA Legal Services on the Navajo Reservation. He just did things to give back. That’s who he was,” Barnhouse said.
He also noted that his friend was “a huge baseball fan,” who loved the New York Yankees as well as the Albuquerque Isotopes, and he loved live rock music and went to concerts all over the country.
He and Giger were especially fond of travel, and since 2003 they visited more than 35 countries on four continents.
The couple had a “blended family,” Giger said, with three daughters, three grandchildren and a fourth on the way.