COVINGTON, Ga. — When Covington Mayor Steve Horton first heard about Superior Court Judge Horace Johnson Jr.’s sudden death Wednesday morning, he was at a loss for words — a similar response shared countywide.
“It’s unreal,” Horton said. “All I can say — and I’m sure others will echo this throughout the community — is that he was a great, great man.”
Horton said he had known the judge for a long time. He was sworn in as mayor by Johnson in December 2019.
The mayor described Johnson as a “trailblazer” for Newton County and the state throughout his career, but what made him special was the man underneath the robe, Horton said.
“Nothing I can say can do justice to that man,” Horton said. “The way he lived his life — I only hope people can look back and say I lived a life like he did.
“It’s a terrible loss,” he added. “It’s a void that I don’t think anyone can fill.”
Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams said she and Johnson grew up together, despite a small gap between their age. They sang in the choir together at Grace United Methodist Church. She said their fathers were colleagues, which meant their families often spent time together.
“He was intelligent, compassionate, always looking to resolve issues,” she said.
Williams particularly enjoyed his sense of humor and cherished how friendly he was.
“He didn’t let being a judge affect how he treated others,” Williams said. “He was a perfect gentleman — he got along with everyone — a great husband and a great father… He was a great Christian man and always supported his church.
“He was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things for this community, and he will certainly be missed."
Sheriff Ezell Brown, who has worked in law enforcement for 47 years in Newton County, said he knew Johnson from an early age.
Johnson served as Brown’s personal attorney after his graduation from the University of Georgia School of Law and they remained friends until his death, the sheriff said.
He said Johnson presided over several cases when Brown worked as a sheriff’s detective and later after Brown’s election as sheriff in 2008.
“He grew up here as a pillar of the community — a great lawyer, great judge,” Brown said.
“He’s going to be missed dearly, not only by the judicial system but he’s going to be missed dearly by the community as a whole, and even Georgia as a whole.”
Newton County government, through its public information office, issued the following statement regarding Johnson:
“Newton County is saddened by the death of Judge Horace Johnson. A highly-respected jurist, advocate for his community, terrific friend, husband and father, his passing leaves a large void in our community.
“Johnson leaves a legacy that will be long-lasting in Newton County, maintaining justice from the bench, serving as a member of the Kiwanis Club and leading the county’s mentorship program and veterans accountability court with a full heart and so much more.
“Beyond the community he was raised in, Johnson’s service also extended throughout Georgia, including leading the Council of Superior Court Judges and Leadership Georgia.
“The thoughts and prayers of Chairman Marcello Banes, the Newton County Board of Commissioners and all who work for the county are with Judge Johnson’s family. His legacy will endure in Newton County and throughout the entire state of Georgia.”
U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, whose 4th Congressional District includes part of Newton County, wrote in a post on Twitter: “I’m shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of my friend Judge Horace Johnson. My heart goes out to his wife, Michelle, and two sons.”
Officials beyond Newton County, including Gov. Brian Kemp, also shared reactions to Johnson’s death.
State Rep. Bruce Williamson, R-Monroe, stated, “It’s a huge loss for not only the Alcovy Judicial Circuit, but it’s a huge loss for Georgia. He and Michelle epitomized public service. I got to know them extremely well through public service through the Leadership Georgia organization. He had a servant’s heart.
"We disagreed politically but we never disagreed on the fact that what we attempted to do was for the betterment of Georgia. As far of his judicial service, from my perspective, he was a law-and-order judge. He always followed the law and we were blessed to have a fine Christian judge such as he in our circuit. It’s just a huge loss.”
Johnson served as the president of the statewide Council of Superior Court Judges in 2016. The Council said in a statement on behalf of Henry County Superior Court Judge Brian J. Amero, the current council president:
“We are deeply saddened by the news of the passing of our dear friend and colleague, Horace Johnson. Horace was a distinguished leader in our field, and those who interacted with him remember him most for his passion for innovation, gregarious nature and good heart. His service to the Council as a past president and active member was valued beyond words. He will certainly be missed by us all.”
News Editor Tom Spigolon contributed to this report.