"This has been a difficult decision, as it has been a tremendous honor to serve the people of the State of Washington for the past ten years on over 1,000 cases," Johnson said in a written statement. "While I have been grateful for this opportunity, recent health concerns have led me to decide that this was the right time to retire from the bench and spend time with my family and traveling."
Johnson, 68, has missed oral arguments in recent weeks, and a court spokeswoman said he was likely to miss the rest of the winter term due to illness. Johnson's retirement is effective April 30. Supreme Court Justices are elected statewide for six-year terms, and in the event of a vacancy, an election is set to fill the remainder of a justice's term. Until then, the governor may appoint a justice to fill in.
Considered the most conservative member of the court, Johnson often wrote in favor of individual property rights, police tactics and the state's Public Records Act. Nor was he afraid to stand alone in dissent. He recently cast the only vote against having the court retain oversight of education spending in Washington, saying the court was overstepping its bounds, and the only vote against allowing the governor's office to claim "executive privilege" in withholding documents from public view.
In neither case did he shy away from criticizing his colleagues' views.
"The majority ignores our state's constitution, statutes, and populist tradition and does great damage to over 120 years of open government in Washington," Johnson wrote in the public records case. "It is not alarmist to say that this decision could place a shroud of secrecy over much government conduct, unless changed by a wiser court, electorate, or legislature."
He wrote a concurring opinion in 2006 when the court upheld Washington's then-ban on gay marriage. Johnson noted that "professed homosexuals" did, in fact, have a right to marry: They could marry people of the opposite sex. Washington voters approved gay marriage in a referendum in 2012.
Trent England, executive vice president of the Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based free-market think tank, said Johnson's opinions represented views more popular across Washington than they typically are among Seattle lawyers.
"Justice Johnson's legacy is clearly one of standing up for restraint in government and restraint on the court," England said. "It's a profound loss for the entire state because Justice Johnson has been such a clear voice for a point of view that is often buried by trial lawyers and the Seattle-Olympia legal establishment."
Johnson was first elected to the court in 2004 and re-elected in 2010. His term was set to expire in January 2017.
"Justice Jim Johnson has brought an important perspective to the court's deliberations over the years," Chief Justice Barbara Madsen said in news release. "While his departure will be a loss for the Court, we wish him and his family all the best."
Before he joined the bench, Johnson was a long-serving assistant attorney general and had a private practice in constitutional law. Throughout his legal career, he has argued nearly 100 appellate cases in three different federal Courts of Appeal, the Washington Supreme Court and Washington Court of Appeals, and the United States Supreme Court. Two of those cases guaranteed Washington an additional Congressional seat in 1990.
In private practice, Johnson was involved in writing or defending Initiative 601, which capped the state budget; Initiative 747, a 1 percent limit on property tax annual increase unless voter approved; and Initiative 872 that says Washington voters are no longer restricted to one political party.
In his resignation letter to Gov. Jay Inslee, Johnson said he had tried to follow in the footsteps of those who framed the Washington State Constitution and embodied the individual rights of free speech, religious liberty and property protection.
A Seattle native who attended Harvard University and the University of Washington School of Law, Johnson also spent two years in the United States Army.