Interview with 2017 James Wilson Fellow: Tom Johnson

by James Wilson Institute on April 2, 2018

Tom Johnson was recently hired as a general counsel for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Previously, he was the Deputy Solicitor General for the State of West Virginia. He also practiced appellate and constitutional law and labor and employment law as Of Counsel at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. Prior to working at Gibson Dunn, Mr. Johnson clerked for the Honorable Jerry E. Smith on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Houston, TX. Before that, he attended Harvard Law School, where he graduated magna cum laude. Before Harvard, he received a bachelor of arts, magna cum laude, in Government from Georgetown University.

We invite you to read our interview with Tom Johnson:

What is your role as the FCC’s general counsel?

I act as the chief legal advisor for the Commission, which involves two major activities. First, reviewing the sufficiency of Commission rules from a legal perspective and then defending the Commission in litigation, which is primarily defending our orders before the federal courts of appeals and especially the D.C. Circuit. Second, I provide advice to the Commission on legal compliance issues and act as a resource on internal issues, such as employment matters and fiscal issues.

What is the value of the JWI Fellowship to your legal career?

I think the Fellowship really encourages you to think critically as an attorney. I think the basic premise of the Fellowship is that a lot of legal reasoning is simply good reasoning from first principles. I think that has helped make me a better lawyer and helped me to think more critically about first principles as I examine particular legal and policy questions. For example, what is it exactly that we are trying to do as a society? What sort of society do we want to live in? How do we operate within the bounds of law to secure people’s rights and liberties? And ultimately, how do we create a more just society?

What role has your office played in connection with the Commission’s 2017 Restoring Internet Freedom Order, which repealed the Commission’s 2015 “net neutrality” rules?

As with all Commission items, the Office of General Counsel was involved with reviewing the Order from a legal perspective.  We have an exceptional, first-rate staff and I was very grateful that the Chairman thanked me and my staff for our work on the Order when it was adopted last December.  Now, the Order has been challenged in court, and because our agency has the authority to litigate its own cases in the courts of appeals, we will be involved in defending the Order in litigation.  It is a distinct honor of my position to represent the Commission in court on important questions of law and public policy like this one.

What has the transition been like from working in the West Virginia State Attorney General’s office, in some cases suing agencies like the FCC, to defending the agency against state governments and the private sector?

My experience in the State Attorney General’s office was really invaluable to me because it was my first significant opportunity for public service, so it instilled in me a love for public service. It is one of the reasons I found the opportunity to be the general counsel at the FCC so attractive. It was also helpful at the state level to see some of the unique problems and challenges that the states faced, particularly in dealing with an overreaching federal government and the many ways in which the federal government disproportionately places burdens on states and localities.

How was your experience as a James Wilson Fellow? Did any elements, if any, make you think more deeply about your legal career?

It was a great program. I think that often as attorneys we can become very focused on the case in front of us, specific facts, and legal precedents that inform our work on a day to day basis. It was great to have an opportunity, with a group of likeminded people, to take a step back and to really think about the law and legal reasoning as a matter of first principles and to get back to the some of the philosophical underpinnings of our legal system and what legal practice is supposed to be all about.

Why do you think educational programs, like the James Wilson Fellowship, are helpful for young lawyers?

I think a lot of legal education and legal practice has become quite technical and vocational which I think is very helpful but what I think the Fellowship does is it encourages lawyers to place that practice within the broader philosophical tradition that the framers were immersed in and informed their writing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I think this understanding is an indispensable part of a more well-rounded legal education.