Toggle menu

UC Law’s Kelly Johnson Steps in As Interim Hamilton County (OH) Public Defender


With more than 25 years of law practice under his belt, W. Kelly Johnson ’86 accepted another challenge when he became the interim Hamilton County Public Defender in April. After the Public Defender Commission and Shelia Kyle-Reno, the former public defender for Hamilton County, parted ways early that month, the Board sought someone to fill in for three to four months.

“The Board came to me and asked me if I would be interested in filling in during the interim, and my firm, Porter, Wright, Morris & Arthur, very graciously permitted me the opportunity do this for a 90- to 120-day period,” Johnson said. “So I’m doing it with the full support of the firm I work for.”

Johnson is a partner at Porter Wright, where he handles the white collar criminal practice group. He has a wealth of experience as a criminal law attorney and as a public defender. He has worked in criminal law since graduating from the College of Law in 1986. He served in the federal public defender’s office in Cincinnati between 1995 and 2007.

“I’ve spent a large portion of my career in a defender’s office or accepting appointments of criminal cases in the federal and state system,” Johnson said. “I come with a background in public defender work.”

Upon stepping in as interim public defender a little more than two months ago, Johnson attempted to improve the culture in the office, as he instantly noticed a “very significant morale problem in the office.” In a period of about three weeks, he met with all members of the 125-person staff, some individually and others as a group, to get a better grasp of what he could do to improve the situation.

“I think that’s probably the most significant thing I have done – just give the staff an opportunity to voice their concerns and listen to what they need,” said Johnson, who has also worked with the office’s five divisions to find better ways of performing and serving their clients more efficiently.

How A Summer Internship Changed His Life

Although Johnson has vast experience in this line of work, he was initially interested in labor law when he began at the College of Law in the fall of 1983. He did take some criminal law classes, but that was not where he was focused, Johnson said.

Then, in between his 2L and 3L years at the College of Law, Johnson had the opportunity to serve as a constable for Judge Thomas Crush in the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas.

“By chance, while I was there, there was a six-week trial that went on and I got to work with three of the best criminal defense lawyers I’ve ever seen in my life, and I got the bug,” Johnson said of attorneys Tom Miller (now deceased), Arnold Morelli (now retired) and Michael Barrett (now a judge for the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio). “It was just amazing to get to watch these attorneys work. I had incredible respect for what they did.”

Johnson, who grew up on the west side of Cincinnati and graduated from Oak Hills High School, received a degree in economics from Indiana University in 1983. Later, while at the College of Law, he was on Student Court and was the president of the Student Bar Association.

After passing the bar, Johnson began work with Frost & Jacobs (now Frost Brown Todd) for a year, before working at a large firm in Dayton for a couple years. Johnson then spent six years working with the aforementioned Miller before moving to the federal public defender’s office for 12 years. He began working at Porter Wright in 2007.

“I was at the federal public defender’s office and I wanted a challenge. I wanted the opportunity to try to do something different and stretch my skills and use some of the background I had in business and white collar law,” Johnson said. “I went to Porter Wright with the understanding that I’d be working in that area and also to work with the phenomenal lawyer named Kathy Brinkman ’75.”

Professional and Civic Duties Round Out Johnson’s Life

Over the years, Johnson has been involved with a number of professional and civic organizations. This includes serving as a president of the Greater Cincinnati Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Chapter of the Federal Bar Association.

Currently Johnson, who is also active with the Armstrong Chapel United Methodist Church and is on the Cincinnati Bar Association’s Grievance Committee, is mostly involved with kids outside of his work.

“I participate in all their activities – whether it be lacrosse or dance or their academics,” Johnson said of 16-year-old Courtney and 13-year-old twins Ryan and McKenna. “My work and my kids has really been the focus of my involvement the last several years.”

Outside of all this, Johnson plays tennis, likes shooting sporting clays. Last year he did a 100-mile bike ride from Columbus to Athens, riding with his firm’s peloton (a large main group of riders in a road bicycle race) in the Pelotonia event.

As of late May, Johnson said there was some interest in him staying on as the Hamilton County Public Defender, but no decisions have been made at this time.

By Jordan Cohen, ‘13