Judge Iain Johnston – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois

The Dirksen Courthouse - where the Northern District of Illinois sits.

Judge Iain Johnston was already an experienced litigator when he was appointed as a U.S. Magistrate Judge in 2013.  His seven years on the bench since then have prepared him well for a judicial appointment.


Iain David Johnston grew up in McHenry County, Illinois.[1]  Johnston graduated from Rockford College in 1987 and from the John Marshall Law School in 1990.  

After graduation, Johnston clerked for Judge Philip Reinhard on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.  He then joined the Illinois Attorney General’s office under Attorney General Roland Burris, becoming the Unit Supervisor of the Civil Prosecutions Unit.[2]  Johnston became a Partner at Altheimer & Gray in 2002.[3]  In 2003, he moved to Holland & Knight in Chicago.  In 2008, Johnston founded the firm Johnston Green LLC.

In 2013, Johnston was appointed as a Magistrate Judge on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.[4]  He continues to serve on that Court.  

History of the Seat

Johnston has been nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.  This seat opened on May 10, 2019, when Judge Frederick Kapala moved to senior status.  Johnston was nominated for the seat on February 12, 2020.

Legal Career

Johnston has diverse legal experience, going from working for the Illinois Attorney General to working in private practice.  In the former role, Johnston defended the State of Illinois against civil suits.  For example, Johnston defended against claims that the Illinois State Police single out and detain African American and Hispanic citizens disproportionately.[5]

In private practice, Johnston notably represented the City of Evanston against a suit alleging that the imposition of the City’s Demolition Tax violated the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.[6]  Johnston also represented a group of Illinois State Police officers who were sued after a team of prosecutors and police officers allegedly conspired to “frame two innocent men” for the murders of an Illinois couple.[7] 


Johnston has served as a U.S. Magistrate Judge since his appointment in 2013.  In this role, he presides over arraignments, bail hearings, and non-dispositive motions.  He also handles civil cases by consent of the parties.  In his seven years on the bench, Johnston has also presided over many substantive matters.  Most notably, Johnston presided over the lawsuit arising from the County of McHenry’s refusal to allow the Fraternite Notre Dame, Inc. to expand its winemaking, brewing, and commercial activities.[8]  The Fraternite, a Catholic religious order, sued under the U.S. and Illinois Constitutions and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”).  The parties ultimately settled in a consent order after Johnston found that the denial of the permit violated RLUIPA.[9]  In his decision approving the consent order, Johnston noted the anti-Catholic bigotry directed against the order by local residents, noting that the Order faced vandalism and the threats of lynching.[10]


Over his career, Johnston has occasionally authored articles discussing the law.  For example, in an article he wrote as an Assistant Attorney General, Johnston discusses the failure of many attorneys to comply with the Local Rules of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois regarding summary judgment briefing and suggests how to comply with the Rules’ requirements.[11]  In another article written as a U.S. Magistrate Judge, Johnston discusses the depositions of “apex witnesses” or witnesses who claim that they are “too important” to be deposed in civil cases.[12]

Political Activity

Johnston has a limited political history, with only one political contribution to the campaign of Gery Chico, a Democrat running for U.S. Senate.[13]

Overall Assessment

With the exception of some who may be concerned with his defense of municipalities and officers charged with civil rights violations, there will be few who object to Johnston’s qualifications for the federal bench.  As such, one can predict a comfortable confirmation.

[1] Press Release, Office of Northern Illinois Federal District Court Chief Judge James Holderman, McHenry-Raised Iain Johnston Appointed Federal Magistrate in Rockford to Replace P. Michael Mahoney, Feb. 1, 2013.

[2] Id. 

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] See Chavez v. Ill. State Police, 27 F.Supp.2d 1053 (N.D. Ill. 1998).

[6] Kathrein v. City of Evanston, 636 F.3d 906 (7th Cir. 2011).

[7] See Whitlock v. Brueggemann, 682 F.3d 567 (7th Cir. 2012).

[8] See Fraternite Notre Dame, Inc. v. Cty. of McHenry, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40030 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 2, 2020).

[9] Drew Zimmerman, Religious Order Expansion Can Go Forward in Marengo, Chicago Daily Herald, Mar. 10, 2020.

[10] See Fraternite Notre Dame, supra n. 10 at *6-7.

[11] Iain D. Johnston, Summary Judgment Motions in the Northern District: The Importance of Local Rules 12M & 12N, 12 CBA Record 24 (April 1998).

[12] See Hon. Iain D. Johnston, Apex Witnesses Claim They Are Too Big to Depose, 41 Litigation 41 (Fall 2014).

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