From the time she was a child, Nichelle Johnson was set on becoming either an actress or a lawyer. As corporation counsel/acting chief of staff for the City of Mount Vernon and a tenacious litigator, she’s fulfilling both dreams. Her courtroom openings and closings provide the perfect stage to do both.
“I love acting the part,” Johnson explains. Case in point: While defending Mount Vernon police officers who were accused of using excessive force during an arrest, Johnson dramatically—and effectively—demonstrated a major point using a 70-pound blow-up doll to dispute the charge. “I set the stopwatch on my iPad for one minute,” she recalls. “One of our interns then pummeled the body dummy in the same way and with the same force the person had accused the police of doing. We were able to show that it was impossible to be beaten in this way with no bleeding or fractures.” The demonstration worked beautifully; the jury returned with a unanimous decision in Johnson’s favor.
That’s just one of many cases she has fervently litigated in her 18-plus years on the legal stage—nearly eight of them with the City of Mount Vernon. That’s where she advises Mayor Ernest Davis, the City Council, and all city officers and departments, playing an active role in the city’s economic development activities, public projects, real estate transactions, and other legal activities, while saving Mount Vernon taxpayers millions of dollars in the process. Johnson has won prevailing decisions in the 2nd Department Appellate Division and the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, even arguing before now US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Although she has seen her share of political frays, Johnson tries to stay off the political stage—a challenge she admits can be taxing. “I’m not a politician,” she states. “We have political reverberations, but I have a job to do no matter what.” Just as challenging is the sometimes delicate dance of defending the city against residents who live in the community. “It’s a small city—you’re fighting people you may know. But I’m just as vigilant and just as aggressive.”
In fact, it’s that passion that the mother of four daughters attributes to her success, which extends to her roles as community advocate and leader. “I have a passion for defending my clients,” she says. “But, with passion comes hours of preparation.” —Karen Odom