Significance: Although he served only briefly on the Supreme Court, Johnson participated in an important case involving the power of federal officials.
Johnson practiced law and served on the Maryland provincial assembly before the American Revolution. He served as the first governor of Maryland from 1777 to 1779. During the 1780's, he worked to ratify the U.S. Constitution and to elect George Washington as president. In 1790 he was appointed chief judge of the Maryland general court. On August 5, 1791, President Washington appointed Johnson as an associate justice on the Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed him on November 7 and he took office on August 6, 1792. During this period of history, each justice was required to travel throughout a particular region of the country and serve as a circuit judge when the Court as not in session. Ill health and the difficulties of travel caused Johnson to resign from the Court on January 16, 1793. In Hayburn's Case (1792), Johnson held the opinion that the attorney general, without the specific permission of the president, had the power to require a federal court to hear a petition. Because the Court was equally divided, however, this power was denied. This case had a major influence on later federal procedures. Johnson also participated in Georgia v. Brailsford (1792), the first case in which written opinions were filed.