Circuit's first female judge set to take office


Published: Tuesday, January 3, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 2, 2006 at 11:32 p.m.
Leandra "Lily" Johnson has a single plan for succeeding in her new job.
"I intend to follow the governor's orders," said Johnson.
Johnson, 51, got her orders from Gov. Jeb Bush after answering a single question two weeks ago: "Lily, are you ready to be a judge?"
When Johnson said yes, Bush told the long-time Lake City resident to do two things, "Work hard and have fun."
Johnson will take office Friday as a Third Judicial Circuit Court judge, the first woman to serve as a judge in the circuit north and west of Gainesville. Her formal investiture has been scheduled for Jan. 20. She has been appointed to a position created by the 2005 state Legislature to ease the judicial caseload circuit-wide.
Since the phone call from Gov. Bush on Dec. 20, Johnson has been working to close her private practice in Lake City, celebrate her 32nd wedding anniversary with her CPA husband Richard and welcome home the couple's 21-year-old and 23-year-old college student sons for the holidays.
"It's been a little busy," said Johnson, adding that she also has taken time to celebrate her parents' 59th wedding anniversary. That was fairly easy because her 82-year-old parents, Dr. Jose and Flora Goyenchea, live right next door.
The Goyencheas left Cuba in February,1965, for Florida, eventually settling in Baker County. Johnson was 10 when the family made its move and spoke only Spanish. Her ability to learn quickly soon became apparent to her teachers.
While her father was establishing his medical practice in North Florida, Johnson was becoming fluent in English and soon she was excelling in school.
She graduated from high school a year early to enroll in community college classes. After completing a bachelor's degree in journalism at the University of Florida in 1979, Johnson proceeded to law school and graduated in 1981.
"I graduated on Saturday and went to work on Monday for (Eighth Judicial Circuit) State Attorney Gene Whitworth," Johnson said.
Whitworth had already seen Johnson's courtroom potential.
While still a law school intern, Johnson prosecuted a motorist accused of driving under the influence.
Although she won a conviction in the case, Johnson still refuses to pat herself on the back. All she will say about that first case and many subsequent convictions is that "justice was served."
Johnson also interned in the Third Circuit for State Attorney Jerry Blair, but he did not have a staff opening for her when she graduated in 1981.
"A year or two later I stole her away from Whitworth," Blair said.
"It was one of the best personnel moves I ever made. She has always had a great work ethic and a good grasp of the law."
Johnson spent another 15 years as an assistant state attorney in the Third Circuit, resigning about five years ago to go into private practice.
"The (assistant state attorney) work was interesting and I enjoyed it, but it was a seven-day-a-week job and you never knew when you might have to get up in the middle of the night to draft a search warrant," Johnson said.
She became a partner in a Lake City law firm that included Fred Koberlein, now the judge for Dixie County.
When Koberlein left the firm a few years ago to become a judge, Johnson took over his position as Columbia County School Board attorney. School officials have joked that there will now have to be a contract provision prohibiting Johnson's replacement from accepting a judicial appointment.
Koberlein said he and his former law partner, Guy Norris, invited Johnson into their firm when she left the State Attorney's Office in 1999 "because she was great in the courtroom. She knows how to try a case."
Johnson's personal goal, beyond Bush's admonition to work hard and have fun, is to be useful.
"I want to be useful to the other judges and to the attorney and the people who come into the courtroom," Johnson said. "Justice delayed is justice denied and I want to help make sure that doesn't happen."

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