Embattled Family Court Judge Steven Jones is mounting an 11th-hour campaign to put off a hearing next week before the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline on allegations he mishandled a romantic relationship with a prosecutor who appeared before him.
The judge’s lawyer, Jim Jimmerson, has filed papers asking the Nevada Supreme Court to halt the proceeding, which is set to begin Monday.
Jimmerson also has filed suit against the judicial commission in District Court and is seeking a temporary restraining order to stop the panel from disciplining Jones. A hearing on the restraining order was set for 11 a.m. today before District Judge Michael Villani.
In a mass of court papers, Jimmerson contends the seven-member commission has blatantly violated Jones’ constitutional due process rights.
“Not only is the petitioner (Jones) worried about his own fate before a commission that, left unchecked, has so quickly and repeatedly abandoned the principles of due process, but he also is very fearful that without meaningful intervention from the court, no judge in the state of Nevada can be secure from the wrongful actions of the commission,” Jimmerson told the Supreme Court.
The commission has a “storied history” of violating the rights of judges it has investigated, Jimmerson added in his District Court papers.
In Jones’ case, Jimmerson said, the commission has “sullied itself” and “brought shame on the very institution the public relies upon to protect them from dangerous judges.”
Lawyers for the commission responded that the judge’s due process rights have been protected during the commission’s investigation and that his last-minute bid to derail the disciplinary proceeding is a ploy to avoid possible sanctions for his alleged misconduct.
Special Counsel Kathleen Paustian said a District Court order at this time blocking the hearing would “usurp the role of the commission” and “irreparably” damage public policy.
“The judge fails to address the fact there is also at stake the reputation of the judiciary and the public confidence in the judiciary as an institution,” Paustian wrote.
Jones, 54, who also is under federal indictment, is accused of violating Nevada’s Judicial Code of Conduct and faces possible sanctions ranging from a private reprimand to removal from office. He has been the subject of a more extensive commission investigation into other allegations of misconduct dating to 2006, but has not been charged.
The commission suspended the longtime judge in November after the federal indictment charged him with participating in a $3 million investment fraud scheme. Jones, who is to stand trial in the criminal case on March 3, has continued to receive his $200,000 annual salary.
The judicial discipline hearing, which could last most of next week, is being held at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority on Paradise Road.
Jones, first elected to Family Court in 1992, has denied the latest allegations of wrongdoing, which were brought to light in a 2011 Las Vegas Review-Journal story.
According to a complaint filed by commission lawyers in December, former Deputy District Attorney Lisa Willardson “actively litigated cases” in the judge’s courtroom while she maintained a relationship with him in 2011. Jones failed to disqualify himself from those cases.
The State Bar of Nevada, which regulates lawyers, declined to formally discipline Willardson over the relationship.
The bar, however, sent Willardson a “letter of caution” that will remain in her professional file for three years.
“While the panel found no clear and convincing evidence that your developing romantic relationship with Judge Jones changed the result of any case, and found it hard to clearly define when your relationship with Judge Jones began,” the letter stated, “the public was left to speculate on what effect the relationship might have had in any matter, and public trust in the justice system was undermined.”
The letter of caution, made public this week by the Judicial Discipline Commission in its court papers, reminded Willardson that she did appear before Jones in an uncontested matter several days after she acknowledged in emails that she was dating him.
“We hope that the foregoing serves as a reminder of your ethical obligations and that no similar problems will arise in the future,” the letter concluded.
Willardson last month filed a federal lawsuit against the district attorney’s office seeking to clear her name and denying she and Jones saw each other socially while she appeared before him.
Former District Attorney David Roger asked the commission to investigate the relationship between Jones and Willardson, a deputy in the child welfare unit.
Roger, who has been subpoenaed to testify before the commission next week, removed Willardson from child abuse and neglect cases before Jones after the relationship became public in October 2011. Later, he fired Willardson.
In an amended lawsuit earlier this month, Willardson claimed her termination was the result of an “ongoing political battle” between Roger and Jones. She added Roger as a defendant to her suit.
The commission’s complaint alleges Jones interfered with Roger’s effort to move Willardson out of the district attorney’s child welfare unit in 2011.
Jones also is accused of improperly banning from his courtroom the two child welfare prosecutors who helped expose the relationship, Michelle Edwards and Janne Hanrahan. Both deputy district attorneys are among those expected to be called as witnesses.
In the federal indictment, Jones was charged with using the power of his office to carry out the decade-long investment fraud scheme, which began in 2002. He is free on his own recognizance.
Federal prosecutors contend Jones’ former brother-in-law, Thomas Cecrle Jr., was the central figure in the scheme. Cecrle, 55, who has a long history of legal problems, is in federal custody while he awaits trial.
Contact reporter Jeff German at email@example.com or 702-380-8135. Follow @JGermanRJ on Twitter.