Peter Johnson Sr., a legendary rags-to-riches Manhattan lawyer who rose from the West Side docks to the apex of the legal profession as a renowned litigator and political kingmaker, died Dec. 3 after a lengthy battle with pulmonary fibrosis. He was 91.
Confidant of governors and mayors, maker of judges, scourge of Tammany Hall, feared and respected adversary, role model to generations of lawyers, decorated Marine and philanthropist, Johnson, a founding partner in Leahey & Johnson, was, in the words of his son Peter Johnson Jr., "an unorthodox force of nature."
"He was just a tremendous lawyer who loved being a lawyer and loved helping people, and a very tough guy, a very strong guy," Johnson Jr. said. "He was not afraid to state simply and boldly what he believed and speak out about what he perceived to be injustice."
Johnson Jr., who had been accompanying his father to court since he was 8, said his father's eloquence and style set the standard for jury presentations.
"He would quote poetry and Aesop's fables and scripture, and talk about heroes in modern life," Johnson Jr. said.
Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman (See Profile) called Johnson Sr. "a giant in our profession" and a "legend in his own time" who "represented a generation of lawyers who built their practice from the ground up and rose to the pinnacle of the profession."
"He was known not only for his legal talents, which were many, but also his devotion to the law and the best interests of the profession," Lippman said. "He will be sorely missed by our profession and by all those who knew him for his wonderful legal talents and engaging persona."
Johnson was born on Oct. 19, 1921, one of 10 children of a longshoreman and a seamstress.
At the age of 17, when his father died, Johnson went to work as a stevedore on the lower West Side docks to help support the family. He later became a New York City police officer, and then enlisted in the Marine Corps during World War II. Johnson was grievously wounded during the Battle of Iwo Jima and spent a year in military hospitals before resuming his duties as a police officer.
While serving with the NYPD by day, Johnson studied law at night and earned his degree from St. John's University School of Law in 1949. He began representing dock workers and fighting for the rights of laborers who often found themselves between the rock of Tammany Hall and the hard place of organized crime.
Johnson Jr. said his father took on notorious Democratic boss Carmine DeSapio in the early 1950s, and while his battle with the machine ultimately led to important electoral reforms, he was blackballed in Manhattan and essentially banished to Brooklyn, where he reestablished his practice.
However, Johnson Sr. returned to Wall Street a few years later and partnered with former Judge Joseph Leahey to establish the litigation firm of Leahey & Johnson, largely a tort defense practice.
Johnson successfully defended the 42nd Street Development Project from a constitutional attack brought by an adult bookstore, represented Governor Mario Cuomo in personal matters and served on a mayoral blue ribbon commission that investigated and reformed the New York City Health and Hospitals Corp. He was an unofficial gubernatorial and mayoral adviser in various administrations and advocate for merit selection of judges.
"There are so many judges in this town who were made by Peter," said one jurist. "He was very influential. He was the gatekeeper in terms of appointments to the appellate bench."
Betty Weinberg Ellerin, who sat on the Appellate Division, First Department, said she first encountered Johnson more than 50 years ago when she was a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Harry Frank and he was already a revered legal superstar.
"He was truly and throughout his life and career a larger than life personality, an extraordinary lawyer who utterly owned the courtroom when he was on trial," Ellerin said. "He not only had extraordinary command of the facts and the law but also connected with jurors in a terrific way."
Ellerin said Johnson had an insatiable thirst for justice and viewed any injustice as a repulsive, personal insult.
"As a human being, in my book, second to none," Ellerin said. "If there was an injustice at hand, Peter couldn't tolerate it and would fight it to the nth degree. Peter could, I suppose, sometimes come off as gruff, but he was one of the kindest people I ever knew."
Ellerin said Johnson influenced a great many judicial careers, including her own.
"He was the kind of guy people took to and his opinion was frequently sought by the powers that be," Ellerin said. "He was very helpful to me in the early days. He guided me in certain ways, suggesting I get involved in certain activities."
One friend said Johnson's annual Christmas party, attended by some of the highest ranking public officials in the state and city as well as his most humble clients and their children, defined a man who moved as comfortably with the high-brow society he joined as a successful lawyer and the working class people from childhood roots he never quite left behind.
Johnson, a devoted Roman Catholic, was a longtime Knight of Malta. He was a former trustee of LaSalle Academy and Our Lady of Victory Church in lower Manhattan and a former president of the Brooklyn, Manhattan Trial Lawyers Association.
In addition to Peter Jr., a member of Leahey & Johnson and a Fox News Channel legal analyst, Johnson is survived by his wife, Veronica; another son, Christopher, president of the charitable Johnson Foundation; and two grandchildren.
A wake will be held tomorrow at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home Chapel at 1076 Madison Ave. from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. A funeral Mass will be celebrated on Dec. 7 at 10 a.m. at St. Patrick's Cathedral, 460 Madison Ave.