Democrats across the nation sent a message to President Donald Trump and his administration in November, winning historic state legislative seats and governorships. Many of them, frustrated with Trump’s policies, decided to run for office in an attempt to energize a disjointed and fractious Democratic Party.
Hanif Johnson is one of those Democrats.
Johnson won the seat in the general election for the Dauphin County Magisterial District in Pennsylvania on Election Day last year, becoming the youngest Magisterial District Judge in the state at 27 years old. The Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, native began his term in January and will preside over cases within the predominately black state capital.
“When you sit back, and you see Donald Trump become president, and you hear about all of these things we are being affected by, it seems like everything happens through the court system,” Johnson told HuffPost, explaining why he decided to run for the seat. “Everybody always says, well, we complain about stuff, but we never get up and do anything. This is me getting up and doing something.”
Johnson is no stranger to the other side of the law. He has been to jail three times and ran through the streets as a teenager before he discovered his passion: track and field. “One day, I decided this ain’t the way I want to live my life, so I started running track. Track actually saved my life,” Johnson said, later becoming a state champion. Johnson currently coaches track and field at Harrisburg High School.
As a student at Penn State University, Johnson ran afoul of the law again, this time as a member of his fraternity, Omega Psi Phi. While he was president of the fraternity, he was charged in connection with hazing allegations. “I went to jail for two weeks, then I went to trial. Thank God I won,” Johnson recalled. “That was one of the happiest days; I just felt like my life was going to be taken from me.”
“It’s crazy because I know how it feels sitting across from that judge and that jury when you’re innocent,” he said.
Now, Johnson has an opportunity to make a difference. “Being that I live in that area, they know me, I know the people, I know what’s going on,” the father of one said. “You have single moms that can’t pay a parking ticket; I have the control to make life easier for her, rather than someone from out of town who don’t understand that $100 ticket might be too much for her and she ends up in jail over that ticket.”
Johnson said his win provided energy to other young people in the area to run for city council, school board and other local positions. “A lot of people came out the house and voted just because I was running,” he said. “If you want to do something and make a change, then just go out and do it.”
A magisterial district judge is a position elected by residents. A law degree isn’t required to take on this role; district judges receive training that prepares them for the legal issues they will face and must pass an examination before taking office. They handle traffic citations, minor criminal cases and determine if cases are either thrown out or go on to the Court of Common Pleas, where major cases are heard.
“Essentially, if you receive a traffic citation and you want to plead guilty to it or you want to appeal it, they are the first line for that,” a spokesperson for Pennsylvania’s Unified Judicial System told HuffPost. “They also hear cases for other offenses as well. It is an elected position.”
The young judge said people closed the door in his face while he was on the campaign trail. Residents were hesitant to cast their vote for someone so young. “They laughed at me in my face,” Johnson They said, ‘Boy, if you don’t get away from my house saying you want to be a judge. You are too young!’ But after the fourth or fifth conversation, I would ask them who they are voting for, and they would say me.”
“I guess I’m not a joke anymore,” he said.