Michele M. Johnson, JD Co-founder & Managing Attorney Tennessee Justice Center
Part of a large, close-knit Catholic family, Michele Johnson learned early to never take health or healthcare for granted. While her father, who had a number of chronic illnesses, had access to care that lengthened his life, twin cousins born prematurely with severe health needs didn’t. The only way the girls could receive the necessary care was to be placed into state custody.
“Their loving and kind smiles are hard to forget. What’s harder to forget is the sound of my aunt sobbing on the car ride home,” Johnson said of the sadness that followed each visit.
That tragic lesson underscored what her family and faith had already taught her. “Every single person matters and without an effective, humane healthcare system, our society cannot reflect that reality.”
After completing her undergraduate degree at the University of Tennessee, Johnson turned her sights to law school. “I wanted to be a lawyer since about the third grade,” she said. The youngest of six was quarreling with an older sibling when her father introduced the idea. “I asked, ‘What does a lawyer do?’ He said, ‘Argues with people,’” Johnson recalled with a laugh.
She met mentor Gordon Bonnyman as a first-year student and ultimately joined him in practice at the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee after graduating from UT Law School. Federal restrictions passed by Congress in the fall of 1995, prompted Johnson and Bonnyman to strike out on their own. “We started the Justice Center to fill the gap in what Legal Services could no longer do,” she explained, adding their focus is on access to care for low-income families.
“Gordon assumes the best in people and often finds it,” Johnson said. “With generosity and kindness, he has made enormous sacrifices to teach me how to run a non-profit, lead a large, complex case, and lead a statewide campaign for systemic improvement. Perhaps his most important lessons have been how to keep working and hoping in spite of devastating losses.”
There have been tremendous wins, as well. Johnson noted, “We reached a settlement in 1998 with the state to ensure children receive the services they need to reach their potential.” Like most cases, however, the reality has been one step forward and three back.
“I wish that I had more power or resources to bring to bear for my clients. Maybe then we could change things more quickly. These families need a system that their children can depend upon. Without it, there continues to be unthinkable and heartbreaking consequences.”
Even on the toughest days, Johnson is pulled back to work by the examples set by many “amazing, heroic doctors” and dedicated mothers who share “their clear vision of a truly just healthcare system, their strong faith, and their courage to transform this vision into reality not only for their own child, but for all Tennessee families.”
Johnson’s own family — husband and consumer advocacy attorney, Jeff Hill, and their three sons, Thomas (11), James (9) and Henry (7) — her faith, and her passion for running feed her soul. A member of Christ the King, Johnson is very active in the parish, and the avid runner often participates in a running group led by her pastor.
“Running keeps me sane, healthy and centered,” she said. Johnson added her most important life lessons have been learned from long distance running, including the need to choose positive, happy running buddies, taking care of yourself, embracing your strength and setting your own pace.
Johnson continued, “When the things you know and have always relied on fail you — your legs, the justice system, your health — that is just the moment when another will show you God’s love. Their kindness and goodness will lift you up and carry you until you are strong enough to carry yourself.”