The Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline on Monday entered its findings of fact in the smoking wreckage that remains of Family Court Judge Steven Jones’ career.
Although it’s a wrist slap compared to what awaits the defrocked judge, the commission also made final its discipline of Jones: a three-month suspension without pay for his unethical relationship with the late prosecutor Lisa Willardson. The commission could have pushed to have him removed from the bench he hasn’t seen in months because of a pending federal fraud indictment.
Instead, it recognized his lack of a prior disciplinary record, “otherwise exemplary” 20-year judicial career, and the “relatively minimal violations” of three of the counts against him to opt for a lesser penalty. (The commission explored only the allegations before it and clearly didn’t wade into other legal swamps in which Jones finds himself mired.)
Truth is, it’s been all over but the shouting for Jones for months. Only he has been denying the undeniable. Backed into a corner in a Jan. 27 hearing, Jones said he planned to withdraw from his re-election bid. The fact he had been making one speaks volumes about the guy.
The notion that he continued to collect his six-figure salary in recent months despite his self-inflicted civil and criminal entanglements is downright disturbing. With his pay finally suspended, you would think even Jones would at last do the right thing and resign from office.
It wasn’t a close call. Ample evidence existed early in the process that pointed to Jones’ inappropriate relationship with a prosecutor who had cases in his courtroom.
“The close relationship of Ms. Willardson, a prosecutor, and Respondent, the judge who presides over their cases caused concern,” commission Chairman Douglas Jones wrote in a unanimous decision. “At least one case had been prosecuted by Ms. Willardson and was still pending through the period when the Respondent’s relationship with Ms. Willardson further developed.”
The judge’s failure to recuse himself was trouble on its face. Parental rights and the future of a child’s custody were at stake.
The commission: “Respondent filed his decision in that case in early December terminating the parental rights of the litigant. Subsequent to the exposure of Respondent’s relationship with Ms. Willardson, that decision was vacated and set aside upon motion for a new trial filed by the mother of the child and stipulation by the parties. The foregoing termination of parental rights case had to be re-tried before another judge as a result of Respondent’s relationship with Ms. Willardson.”
What a waste.
It’s a mindless forfeit of not one but two professional careers, a costly frittering away of commission time and court resources, a senseless spending of precious judicial system credibility and reputation in the community.
Worst of all, it’s a waste of life itself.
Perhaps one day soon we’ll know how Willardson died. Her reputation shot to pieces after her relationship with Jones surfaced, Willardson’s body was found Dec. 26 at her Henderson home. She was 46 and was known as a dedicated prosecutor. No matter the cause of her death, the result is senseless tragedy.
Given its mission and limited jurisdiction, the discipline commission was professionally compelled to acknowledge that as a judge Jones had no previous discipline issues and appeared to have a clean track record. (I believe you will see in the coming weeks and months that those appearances have been deceiving.)
That acknowledgment is a reminder of something important: As a judge, Steven Jones was a very capable fellow. He was bright, well-spoken, and knowledgeable. In short, he had a great deal going for him and easily could have spent the rest of his professional life as a leader in Family Court or another respected jurisdiction.
The fact he’s blown up his career in an ethics imbroglio, a larger federal fraud scandal, and possibly even more felonies as yet uncharged adds up to a staggering fall from grace.
And for what?
Perhaps one day we’ll know the answer to that question, too.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.