Judge Sterling Johnson Jr., who ruled over Brooklyn federal court for 30 years, dies at 88

judge sterling johnson
Judge Sterling Johnson Jr., (left) a longtime judge in the Eastern District of New York, passed away on Monday at age 88.
Photo courtesy Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor for the City of New York/Facebook

Judge Sterling Johnson, Jr., who presided over thousands of cases during his 31-year tenure as a District Judge in Brooklyn federal court, passed away on Oct. 10 at age 88, the court announced on Wednesday.

“I was heartbroken to learn that Judge Sterling Johnson, Jr. passed away this evening,” said Senator Chuck Schumer in an Oct. 10 statement. “He was a lion of Brooklyn. A dedicated public servant, few have left as indelible a mark on the legal landscape of New York as Judge Johnson. I will miss his friendship and wisdom deeply.”

Johnson was nominated to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York by then-president George H.W. Bush in 1991, and presided over cases in the Downtown Brooklyn courthouse until last year, according to the Office of the District Executive. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the judge made only a brief foray out of the borough in the mid-1950s, when he joined the U.S. Marine Corps. 

sterling johnson jr
Johnson served as a federal judge for over 30 years and spent his entire professional career in law enforcement and on the bench. Photo courtesy Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor for the City of New York/Facebook

After three years of service, Johnson returned to the city and signed for two major life changes: he joined the New York City Police department and enrolled in night classes at Brooklyn College. By day, he served as a police officer, rising through the ranks from patrolman to sergeant as he worked in the narcotics, detective, and juvenile aid divisions.

When he finished his bachelors’ degree, Johnson was accepted into Brooklyn Law School and, after ten years pulling double-duty in school and on the streets, graduated at the top of his class and was quickly hired as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York. 

His work assisting in investigations and prosecutions led to his nomination as the executive director of the infamous Civilian Complaint Review Board, the body that investigates police brutality in the NYPD. From 1974 to his appointment as a federal judge, Johnson worked to investigate and prosecute federal drug crimes — as Special Narcotics Prosecutor for New York City, he helped to prosecute more than 7,000 criminal cases, according to the court.

Once appointed to the Eastern District court — which presides over Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Long Island — Johnson handled several high-profile cases — in 2000, he ruled that New York City had failed to provide adequate care for its residents with HIV and AIDS, according to the New York Times. Seven years earlier, he had forced the U.S. to close a derelict detention facility in Guantanamo Bay and allow those held there to enter the country as their cases were heard.

Outside of the courthouse, Johnson was a member of over a dozen professional organizations and task forces, including the Task Force on Minorities in the Judiciary and the Second Circuit Task Force on Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts. He was a founding member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, a national organization seeking to “ensure equity in the administration of justice.” 

Last spring, the National Black Prosecutors Association gave Johnson a Lifetime Achievement Award, honoring his lifelong commitment to public service. A downstate chapter of the association is named for Sterling.

“I feel that I’m not worthy, I’ve done nothing that any other good prosecutor wouldn’t do,” Johnson said at the ceremony. “I am blessed that I have the love of all the people who are here, all the people who were here, and all the people who are not here. I am blessed to have touch the lives of so many people … I’ve had a marvelous life.”

sterling johnson jr on stage receiving award
Johnson received the lifetime achievement award from the National Black Prosecutors Association earlier this year in honor of his decades of service. Photo courtesy Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor for the City of New York/Facebook

From 1997-98, now-U.S. Attorney Breon Peace served as a clerk for Johnson. 

“In addition to his towering achievements in the law, Judge Johnson will be remembered for his dedication to family, including his family of law clerks and his EDNY family, for his inexhaustible willingness to mentor others and share his wisdom, and for his welcoming persona,” the office of the District Executive in the Eastern District of New York said in a statement. “Judge Johnson had a steadfast commitment to justice, whether from the bench or in his various advocacy positions, ad a deep sense of community and love for those around him.” 

Johnson is survived by his wife, Barbara, and his two children and two grandchildren. 

“In the courtroom and in life, Judge Johnson was a compassionate and conscientious leader who was guided by a strong moral compass,” said New York Attorney General Letitia James in a statement. “He will be remembered for his shrewd ability to balance legal demands and moral obligations to do the right thing. May he rest in peace and power.”