Q & A with Daniele Johnson, candidate for Cobb Superior Court judge

Daniele Johnson in jacket, smilingDaniele Johnson (photo provided by Daniele Johnson)

By Arielle Robinson

The Courier spoke over the phone with Daniele Johnson, a private family attorney who is running to become the next Cobb Superior Court judge. The nonpartisan election is May 24.

Johnson is one of five candidates who seek to fill the seat of current Judge Robert Flournoy III, who announced his retirement after 2022.

For anyone who wonders what the Superior Court does and why it matters, please refer to Georgia’s Superior Courts website, which says:

“The Superior Courts of Georgia is a court of general jurisdiction handling both civil and criminal law actions. Superior Court Judges preside over cases involving misdemeanors, contract disputes, premises liability, and various other actions. In addition, the Superior Court has exclusive equity jurisdiction over all cases of divorce, title to land, and felonies involving jury trials, including death penalty cases.”

To check out other candidates the Courier has interviewed about this nonpartisan race, please click here.

Talk about your background. Who are you?

Johnson: “Well, I’m Daniele Johnson and I’m running for Cobb County Superior Court judge. I was born and raised in Waukegan, Illinois, which is a northern suburb of Chicago. I am the youngest of seven, I have five older brothers and a sister. My parents were married for 55 years, we lost mom three years ago. Dad was lucky after fleeing Jim Crow Arkansas, he was part of the great industrial migration.

“…I [had] very strict parents, very involved parents, great role models for me and my five brothers and my sister. Never a dull moment. Everybody knew the Johnsons in the neighborhood.

“My parents sent me to Coe College, which is a private school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I did very well there and then I ended up applying to law schools. I got accepted to 12, 13 different law schools, and Widener University in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, offered me a full academic scholarship.

“During my third year of law school, I took an internship with the Central Pennsylvania Legal Aid Society and I was certified to represent victims of domestic violence. I was pretty sheltered [growing up], so here I was, 25 years of age and I’m certified to represent victims. I remember hearing these stories and seeing these women and I was just floored, absolutely floored. My decision to practice family law was really solidified there.

“[In law school], the Dauphin County District Attorney happened to be my adjunct professor. The first day of class, the very first thing he said was, ‘we’re not hiring, don’t ask.’ I did very well in his class. He also took notice, so he, on the very last day of class, pointed to me, someone took me over and said ‘come here,’ and he says, ‘what are you doing after law school?’ And then I said I’m hoping to get a job, and he says, ‘come work for me at my office, I think you’ll do very well there.’ I said okay. I had not yet graduated, we had not yet sat for the bar, everyone’s freaking out about what they are going to do after law school, and I’m like, ‘this job just fell in my lap. Of course I’m going to take it.’

“I had no idea what a DA was when he offered me the job — I’m like, okay, I’ll take it. And then I actually had to go and Google what does a DA do? My mind since seventh grade, since high school, since my third year of law school had always been, ‘I’m going to practice family law.’ And then all of a sudden I’m thrown into the DA’s office, which was a fantastic experience.

“It was baptism by fire, so to speak, for trial preparations. And it was a fantastic experience. The way that the DA’s office up there handled their caseload was that the newer DAs such as myself — the DAs who had less than three, four years under their belt — we handled the misdemeanor crimes.

“What they also did was they assign the junior DAs to the more senior, seasoned attorneys that handled the more complicated cases — the felony cases, the rapes, the homicides, arsons, and things like that. It just so happened that I was assigned to the Special Victims Unit. I was assigned to the senior attorney who handled the felony crimes committed against children. So it’s aggravated assault, it’s rape, it’s child molestation, it’s those types of cases that I was part of a team handling.

“I have to be careful because I don’t want to mislead anyone [into thinking] that I was lead prosecutor on these cases because that’s not true — Sean McCormack, he was. I was his junior attorney, so I was there at the preliminary hearings, I was there for trial prep, I was there for victim interviews. So although I was not lead prosecutor, I was an essential part of that team.

“For personal reasons and for professional reasons, I did relocate from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, down to Cobb County. We’ve lived in Cobb County since 1999. [My husband] and I were married in 2003 and we have three beautiful children. We had twins in 2006 and then we welcomed our third child in 2007. Just like my mom, just like my dad, all I do is work and take care of kids and it’s just a fabulous life.

“Now I’m a family law attorney. I’ve been practicing family law since 1999. I love what I do, I feel as if I’m making a difference one family at a time. It’s not easy doing family law, you’re dealing with a lot of complex issues. You’re dealing with children and custody and child support and money and alimony and domestic violence and it’s draining yet rewarding at the same time. I cannot imagine doing anything else but this. And that’s my experience and I’m hoping to bring it to the Cobb County Superior Court bench. I think I could just do more than what I’m doing now.”

You say you have a “practical understanding of pre-COVID and post-COVID courtroom management.” What does this mean and how could this apply if you became judge?

“I have been practicing in front of judges in Cobb County for the last 25 years. I’ve learned that each one of those judges has different ways of how they handle their calendar calls, how they schedule their hearings, how they handle the emergency hearings, and I’ve learned from each and every one of them. I’ve also learned from the other judges that I’ve appeared before in other counties as well.

“So I knew how things were being handled before COVID hit in 2020. I knew what works, I know what doesn’t work, and I know what could work better if something needs to be tweaked a little bit. And that’s just from practicing in court. That’s just from litigating. That’s just from presenting trials and evidence and just being there basically, and watching and observing and seeing how things work.

“Post-COVID, I’m seeing how things are working, how things can work better, and how things don’t work at all. I think all of the practicing attorneys, we were a bit nervous when it was announced that a lot of the temporary hearings are going to be held via Zoom now, a lot of the discovery disputes are going to be held via Zoom, mediation was going to be held via Zoom.

“So I’m seeing just practically how these things are working and I would probably keep a lot of it. I love the mediations that are being handled through Zoom, I think they are more time effective, I think the attorneys appreciate them more, I think the mediators appreciate it more, and so do the parties, in my opinion, just because of the way that we handle things, and it’s not as expensive for the parties now to mediate.

“I like the discovery disputes, simple hearings, such as motions to compel, motions for contempt of court that aren’t likely to lead to incarceration, things like that. I will probably keep those in my own practice as a sitting judge. So I guess that’s the answer to the question. I have that practical experience just because I’m living it day by day just from being a practicing attorney.”

What does rehabilitation look like to you?

“So, first of all, I would say it depends on the case. It depends on the crime for which one has been convicted of. I’m not talking about the more serious crimes — homicide, rape, robbery — the seven deadly crimes. Non-violent crimes, though, I would take a look at the circumstances that led them down this path. Is it drugs? Is it alcohol? Is it mental health? We have courts now that would give them the resources to address those issues in our attempt to limit the likelihood of the recently released being repeat offenders.

“I do believe that if you stand convicted of a crime, if you’ve been found guilty by a jury of your peers or by the judge, I think that the punishment should fit the crime and you should pay your debt to society, whatever that debt may be. But if that debt is going to conclude with being released back into society, then we need to give you the tools necessary for you — and for society — to safely reenter. That means that if you don’t have a GED, get your GED while you’re in prison, if you don’t have some sort of job skills, get one hopefully while you’re in prison, or at least send you to a program where you can get yourself the skills necessary to be a productive member of society. I see nothing wrong with that.”

You have mentored with the Returning Citizens Project, which overlooks people formerly incarcerated transitioning back to society. How do you think that judges can play a role in helping incarcerated people transition back to society?

“I think Flynn Broady actually has a newprogram that he instituted expunging the records of nonviolent crimes. That helps [the formerly incarcerated] with getting employment and housing, which is a good thing. So programs such as that would be very helpful.

“Getting the recently released individuals in connection with programs such as Hope for Returning Citizens at Tip Top [Poultry] and any other organization or employer who might be interested in having similar programs — MUST Ministries, that’s another organization that has been fantastic and they work hand in hand with Tip Top’s Hope for Returning Citizens — and just giving them the resources and programming out there just to get them back on their feet and get them on the right path [is a good idea]. And hopefully, they’ll stay on that path.”

In general, do you think the court system as it stands right now is fair and compassionate to folks, especially to folks from working-class backgrounds and people of color? Why or why not? If you don’t think it’s fair, how do you work to improve things?

“From my perspective, from what I am seeing, I think the system is quite fair. I see the system every day. I know that when I go in and argue in front of the judges, particularly in Cobb County, I know I’m going to get a fair shake, I always have.

“I think, of course, no system is perfect. So of course we do need to do better, especially when it comes to domestic violence and recognizing the many facets of domestic violence and realizing that it crosses all races, all barriers, all socioeconomic [backgrounds], and genders. And I really do think that we need to have a better understanding of how domestic violence plays out in the dynamics of families.

“I can mention one or two cases where I don’t think the ruling was fair. But I think based on the information that was provided or made available to the courts and their basic understanding of domestic violence, it was the best that we could do. If I had to make a critique about the system, it will be that. We need to have a better understanding of [domestic violence]. But overall, I think the system is fair. That’s just based on my experience and what I’ve been observing in the last 25 years of being here in Cobb.”

You have a background in family law, including acting as a guardian ad litem and handling divorce cases. In divorces, children may be left feeling lost and distressed due to the changes in their life. How do you think that as a judge you could act in the best interests of the child in divorce cases?

“Well, that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 25 years. When I advocate for a custody case, I put my whole heart and soul into it and I fight for things that I think are fair and what’s best for the child. I’ve always put the child’s best interest even before that of my client. That is the reputation that I have in the legal community, I will put the best interests of the child over my own client’s interest in a heartbeat. I have always done that.

“And when clients come to me in a custody case, I specifically tell them I will not fight and fuss and argue and advocate for anything that I don’t think is going to serve the child’s best interest. As a practicing family law attorney as well as a guardian ad litem — feel free to look at some of my reviews as well, you can go to Google, you can go to Avvo — I’m not shy when it comes to protecting a child. Always. I will always protect children.”

You have experience working with domestic violence victims. Despite movements in recent years that have brought attention to violence against women and children, statistics show that many sexual assault cases still go unreported and furthermore, the majority of perpetrators of sexual violence do not go to jail or prison. Some victims are faced with the possibility of police and others in the criminal justice system not believing their stories. How do you think judges could play a role in better supporting adults and children who face domestic abuse?

“We need to do better. We have to have a better understanding of what domestic violence is. I have handled hundreds of domestic violence divorces and of those, only eight of them actually involved physical abuse. It’s the other stuff — it’s the yelling, it’s the screaming, it’s the name-calling, it’s the sexual abuse. But judges, we need to get it out of our minds that if there isn’t a busted lip or a broken arm then there’s no violence happening.

“[Also, in some cases] there is no follow-up with the alleged victim. There is no, ‘hey, you were supposed to be in court today at nine o’clock, you weren’t here. What happened?’ [The court should] give her the chance to say, ‘well, the reason I didn’t show up is because he’s threatening me,’ or ‘he called me in violation of the ex parte.’ A simple phone call from a victim’s advocate, from the court to say why did you drop this, or send a squad car over to make sure that she’s okay — that’s easy.

“Getting informed and having a better understanding of what domestic violence is and how it impacts the family and the children in particular, [judges should] have that understanding before you up and decide to give primary custody to the alleged perpetrator, or you up and decide to give unsupervised visitation to someone who behaves a certain way when he or she is under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

“Maybe put more protective protocols in place in the parenting plan to say absolutely no drugs, no alcohol during your parenting time with the children. Having a basic, common sense approach to and knowledge of how domestic violence impacts every single member of the family that is before you is how judges could do better.”

How do you think your background best prepares you to be the next Superior Court judge?

“The lessons that I learned from my mom and my dad, the lessons I learn from my father still, just everything. I’m so fortunate that I have my loving husband and my partner in life, my teenagers are fantastic children. My parents were role models to me and I’m being role models to my kids, so that’s great. The basic compassion that I have for others that I’ve had since I was little, it’s just an aid in my character.

“My experience as a family law attorney [prepares me]. I’ve dealt with families from every angle of the spectrum, from poverty to the extremely wealthy, to Black, white, and everything in between. I’ve had to deal with so many different cultures.

“Not to mention that I have the prosecutors background of hearing the sad, sad stories of the felony crimes committed against children. I haven’t even touched upon the domestic violence cases that I handled in my third year of law school. Having that background plus the family law background plus the guardian at litem training and certification [also helps prepare me].

“Plus, I’m not shy, I’m an open book. Ask me a question, I’m going to answer the question. And just not being shy about giving my opinions about what could be done, what should have been done, or what could have been done better helps me. I’m not shy. When I say I’m not shy I mean — I’m very blunt.”

Anything else you feel is important to mention to voters about you and/or your campaign?

“I think that there is a lack of understanding of what Superior Court actually does, a lot of people don’t know. So what I’ve been trying to do on the campaign trail is explain to people what Superior Court actually does.

“Billy Bob Joe gets a divorce last week, that’s not going to hit the news. Or Timmy and Jane, they were placed with dad for primary custody — that’s not newsworthy, so people don’t know. So I guess I would say, inform the readers, inform the voters of what Superior Court actually handles — [primarily], it’s the family law cases. Secondly is going to be the felony cases. Third, small business litigation and real estate, transactions. That’s all heard by Superior Court — a small percentage — but still.”

To learn more about Johnson, visit her website.

Arielle Robinson is a student at Kennesaw State University. She also freelances for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution and is the former president of KSU’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists as well as a former CNN intern. She enjoys music, reading, and live shows.