Back in high school in the late 1940s in Lake Charles, La., where there were only a couple of black lawyers and no female lawyers, Normalie Holloway told her friends at the drugstore where she dipped ice cream after class that she had no time for romance; she was headed to law school.

"She said she wouldn't get married until she was stable, and that's what she did," said her brother, Lionel Holloway, a sheriff's deputy in Lake Charles. "She was so focused, she wouldn't let anything get in her way."After high school graduation, she moved north to Washington. She worked her way through District of Columbia Teachers College, then, while teaching in a junior high school, she studied law at night at Georgetown University.

In her 30s, after being admitted to the District of Columbia Bar, she married right on the schedule she had mapped for herself. In 1970, she became a Superior Court judge, and in 1980, she was appointed to the federal bench.

As a federal judge, Norma Holloway Johnson has a reputation for taking a hard line with the less disciplined and is generally considered favorable to prosecutors. As the chief of the U.S. District Court overseeing the grand jury process, she has enormous authority over Kenneth Starr's independent-counsel investigation into President Clinton's relationship with a former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.

In 18 years on the bench, Johnson has been known to lecture defendants about the lessons she learned growing up poor and making it the hard way.

"No sentence is sufficient to atone for your crimes," she told Joseph Waldholtz, the former husband of former U.S. Rep. Enid Greene, a Utah Republican. Johnson added four months to the 33 months in prison that the government had sought after Waldholtz pleaded guilty to tax and election fraud.

In a fraud case two years ago, she was reversed in part because of her scalding remarks to a defense lawyer. She is considered particularly tough on the powerful - defendants she seems to put in the category of those who should have known better.

Though she is a registered Democrat, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Carter, her brother said she is not strongly political. He summed up her philosophy this way: "Norma and I hold conservative views. We believe in getting out there and doing it for yourself and not expecting a handout. She believes what's right is right and what's wrong is wrong and there is no in between."

She and her husband, Julius Johnson, have no children. But Johnson has been an active aunt. She offered to send each of her brother's seven children to college, and four of them took her up on it. She has also volunteered for several causes, working hard as a board member for the National Children's Center, a Washington nonprofit agency that works with people with disabilities.