Without rendering a decision, the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline wrapped up a week-long hearing Friday into allegations suspended Family Court Judge Steven Jones mishandled a relationship with a prosecutor who appeared before him.
Panel members plan to meet in Reno next week to deliberate the longtime judge’s fate and release a written decision.
If they find he violated the Nevada Code of Judicial Conduct in any of the 12 charges against him stemming from the relationship with former Deputy District Attorney Lisa Willardson, they will return to Las Vegas Dec. 16 for a public hearing on sanctions.
In closing arguments Friday, Kathleen Paustian, a special counsel for the commission, said Jones at a minimum had a “close, social relationship” with Willardson while she “actively litigated” cases before him the last two weeks of October and the first week of November 2011.
Paustian said the high-profile disciplinary case was about maintaining the public’s trust in the judiciary and holding a member of the judiciary responsible for his actions.
She argued evidence presented during the long-awaited hearing showed Jones retaliated against two of Willardson’s fellow deputies, who helped expose the relationship.
Jones banned Deputy District Attorneys Michelle Edwards and Janne Hanrahan from his courtroom and interfered with then-District Attorney David Roger’s authority to ship Willardson out of the child welfare unit that handled cases before Jones, Paustian argued.
The longtime judge tried to “manipulate” Willardson’s return to the unit and started a fight with Roger that stalled important juvenile cases during the holidays.
Paustian said Jones did not refute evidence that he helped Willardson prepare her lengthy response to a State Bar of Nevada complaint against the former prosecutor and put his court staff to work on the response at taxpayer expense, as well.
Paustian said she wasn’t questioning the judge’s “exemplary” record on the bench since his first election in 1992, but rather his judgment in starting a romantic relationship with someone appearing before him.
Several times, Paustian referred to Willardson as the judge’s “girlfriend,” citing emails between Willardson and Jones the last two weeks of October 2011 in which she said Jones was “awesome” and “hot.”
Willardson was in the audience during closing arguments and occasionally shook her head and sighed in disgust, as Paustian addressed the commission.
At one point, when the judge’s lead lawyer, James J. Jimmerson, was delivering his closing argument, the alarm on Willardson’s cellphone started blaring, interrupting his statements.
Jimmerson suggested to the commission that the “truthfulness” of Jones during his several hours of testimony the last two days of the hearing was more impressive than the string of witnesses commission attorneys presented, including Roger and the two deputies who blew the whistle on Jones.
Jones denied being romantically involved with Willardson the last two weeks of October 2011 and trying to interfere with Roger’s decision to move Willardson out of his courtroom.
“This judge is not a loose cannon,” Jimmerson said.
Jimmerson argued that Jones did not start the fight with Roger, and he blamed an independent effort by top Family Court Administrator Leonard Cash to “smooth things over” with Roger for landing Jones in trouble with the commission.
Roger incorrectly perceived Cash’s offer as coming from Jones and became infuriated, eventually filing a complaint against Jones with the commission and the complaint against Willardson with the State Bar, Jimmerson argued. Roger also fired Willardson.
In his testimony Friday, Jones again acknowledged making mistakes.
“In hindsight, I wish there were a lot of things I had done differently,” he told the commission.
But he insisted he did not violate the code of conduct, and he made a passionate plea to the panel to dismiss the 12 counts against him.
He said he would gladly take guidance from the commission to govern his future conduct on the bench.
“I will take guidance until the day I die,” he said.
Jones stuck to his story under cross-examination from Paustian that his troubles with the commission were the result of actions by the district attorney’s office, not him.
In testimony Thursday, Jones said he was “exceedingly offended” by a photo Edwards snapped of him under a table at an Oct. 28, 2011, party with his hand near Willardson’s knee.
The photo sparked the rift between Jones and the district attorney’s office that echoed through the hallways of the Clark County justice system.
Jones testified that he was outraged that the district attorney’s office refused to discipline Edwards and Hanrahan, who showed the cellphone photo to their supervisors.
He called the conduct of the two deputies juvenile and said he had a hard time sitting back and watching the district attorney’s office “condone this inappropriate behavior.”
Jones insisted that he didn’t consider himself to be in a romantic relationship with Willardson the last two weeks of October 2011, including the night of the party, when Willardson was still appearing before him in child welfare cases.
But on cross-examination Friday, Paustian said records showed Jones and Willardson text messaged each other 34 times on Oct. 20, 2011, the day after they met for lunch for the first time.
Investigators uncovered 2,500 texts between Jones and Willardson through Dec. 15 of that year, Paustian said.
Jones and Willardson contended in their testimony that they didn’t start thinking they were in a relationship until Thanksgiving, when they spent time together with Willardson’s family in Utah. Jones said Friday that he’s still dating Willardson.
Jones was suspended by the commission following his November 2012 federal fraud indictment. He has been receiving his $200,000 annual salary since then.