WASHINGTON (AP) — Before House Speaker Mike Johnson was elected to public office, he was the dean of a small Baptist law school that didn’t actually exist.
The Judge Paul Pressler School of Law was supposed to be a capstone achievement for Louisiana College. Instead, it collapsed roughly a decade ago without enrolling students or opening its doors amid infighting by officials, accusations of financial impropriety and difficulty obtaining accreditation.
There is no indication that Johnson engaged in wrongdoing while employed by the private college, now known as Louisiana Christian University. But as a virtually unknown player in Washington, the episode provides insight into how Johnson has navigated challenging leadership moments in the past. It’s also a reminder of his longstanding ties to the Christian right.
Johnson’s tenure at the school is just the latest chapter of his life to be unearthed since the little-known Louisiana lawmaker’s improbable election as speaker last week by a House Republican majority riven by infighting since the ouster of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
That elevation has drawn an intense spotlight to Johnson’s career as a litigator for conservative Christian groups and a lawmaker.
With Johnson now second in line to the presidency, his instrumental role in a legal effort to overturn Donald Trump’s 2020 election loss has also drawn fierce criticism from Democrats who question what he would do as House speaker if the outcome of next year’s presidential election is in dispute.
Johnson’s office didn't comment and would not make him available for an interview.
James Michael Johnson, 51, was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, the eldest of four children in what he has described as a “traditional Christian household.” Tragedy struck when Johnson was 12.
His father, Pat, a Shreveport firefighter and hazardous materials specialist, was critically injured in an explosion at a cold storage facility that killed his partner.
Johnson has said he was the first in his family to graduate college, enrolling at Louisiana State University, where he earned a law degree in 1998. He also worked on the 1996 Senate campaign of Louis “Woody” Jenkins, where he had an early brush with a contested election.
Jenkins narrowly lost to Democrat Mary Landrieu amid allegations of voter fraud, including ballots cast by dead people and voters who were paid. An investigation by the Senate’s then-Republican majority found no evidence “to prove that fraud or irregularities affected the outcome of the election.”
But in the wake of Trump’s 2020 election loss, the congressman offered a differing view.
“Even though we had all the evidence all wrapped up,” Johnson, told Louisiana radio host Moon Griffin in 2020, the Senate “put it in a closet and never looked at it again.”
Even though Jenkins lost, Johnson drew notice from conservative activists.
“The reality is Mike added value everywhere he went. And that was evident from the early days,” said Gene Mills, who now leads the Louisiana Family Forum.
Soon Johnson was representing the group and others during his roughly decade-long tenure as an attorney for the nonprofit Alliance Defense Fund, which presented itself as a bulwark for traditional family values.
The organization conceived the legal strategy that led to the Supreme Court last year overturning the constitutional right to an abortion. Much of Johnson’s early work for ADF was far more prosaic, representing conservatives on issues related to the exercise of faith in schools, as well as zoning disputes over casinos and strip clubs.
But Johnson’s vehement opposition to the burgeoning gay rights movement in the mid-2000s soon garnered attention.
He wrote guest columns in the Shreveport Times that included anti-gay rhetoric, including a prediction that same-sex marriage would be a “dark harbinger of chaos and sexual anarchy that could doom even the strongest republic.”
In 2004, he represented the Louisiana Family Forum in opposing a case filed by gay rights supporters who sought to block a voter-approved state constitutional amendment that prohibited “civil unions” — a legal precursor to same-sex marriage — and codified marriage as between one man and one woman.
“Discontent with an election’s results does not entitle one to have it overturned,” he wrote in a legal brief. Nearly two decades later, Johnson, then in Trump’s corner, would effectively argue the opposite.
Johnson’s harsh rhetoric in the early 2000s surrounding the issue of gay rights contrasts starkly with the amiable image he cultivated following his election to public office, punctuated by appeals for “a respectful, diverse society."
Yet his arguments sometimes obscured a far more striking reality.
Legislation he sponsored as a freshman state representative in 2015 would have effectively blocked Louisiana from punishing business owners and workers who discriminated against gay couples, so long as it was for religious reasons.
The following year, critics charged that his “Pastor Protection Act” which was focused on gay marriage would also create a legal defense for clergy who opposed interracial marriage. The bill was rejected by lawmakers in both parties. Johnson was elected to Congress the next fall.
Lamar White Jr., a progressive who wrote a widely read Louisiana political blog, said his interactions with Johnson were always pleasant, even if he “disagreed with everything he stood for.”
“His climb to the top is not surprising considering his personal charm, his charisma and intellect, which were disarming,” said White. “That obscured the end goal and what he was really up to.”
In Johnson’s rapid rise there is one milestone that he does not typically mention: his two years serving as the dean of the Judge Paul Pressler School of Law at Louisiana College.
Johnson was hired in summer 2010 by a board of trustees that included Tony Perkins, his longtime mentor. And school officials had hoped it would someday rival the law school at Liberty University, the evangelical institution founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
But for several years, the college had been in a state of turmoil following a board takeover by conservatives who felt the school had become too liberal. They implemented policies that restricted academic freedoms. The school’s president and other faculty resigned, and the college was placed on probation by an accreditation agency.
Johnson struggled to draw an adequate amount of cash. Meanwhile, drama percolated behind the scenes, culminating in a flurry of lawsuits, including one by the school’s vice president, who accused its president of misappropriating money and lying to the board.
The environment turned untenable after the school was denied accreditation to issue juris doctorate degrees, leading to Johnson’s resignation in the fall of 2012.
Johnson went back to litigating for Christian causes, but he also didn’t stray too far. He continued representing them in a case challenging a health care law that required employers to provide workers with access to birth control.
It’s a position he held for six more years.
Associated Press writers Richard Lardner and Trenton Daniel in New York contributed to this report.