The 21-year-old football star turned Marine had been in Vietnam four days.
He was miserable and scared. Rain poured down in the pitch black night as he hunkered in a foxhole with a South Vietnamese soldier who didn’t speak English.
That was the moment James Bixler realized he would become a lawyer.
“I was weighing my options,” he said. “I wanted to do something with my life. I decided the most logical choice is: you’ve got to go to law school.”
He spent a year in Vietnam before returning home to focus on earning his law degree in 1973.
Bixler is retiring in January as a Clark County District Court judge after 34 years on the bench.
He and fellow District Judge Valorie Vega are among the longest-serving judges in Clark County. They’ve presided over more than 600 jury trials and overseen some of the most famous — and infamous — cases in Las Vegas.
In the waning weeks of their careers, Bixler and Vega recently reflected on their decades in Las Vegas courtrooms.
Along with Bixler and Vega, who are cleaning out there offices at the Regional Justice Center, two other judges are leaving the bench. District Court Judge Allan Earl, who hears only civil matters, and Family Court Judge Gloria O’Malley.
Earl, who was first appointed to the bench in 2000, oversaw discovery in the civil cases related to the hepatitis C outbreak.
O’Malley was elected to her first six-year term in 1993, running unopposed for three more terms. She was appointed the first female presiding judge of Family Court in 1997. She also has served as a domestic relations referee and a paternity hearing master.
Bixler recounted lawyers fist-fighting in court, while Vega remembered a man charged with murder who shoved his lawyer out of a chair moments before trial.
Asked what prompted him to seek a judgeship, Bixler said jokingly, “I don’t know how that happened.”
It wasn’t easy.
Often working into the early morning hours at the start of his legal career, he sought a judicial appointment but was passed up.
In 1980, he decided to run a campaign.
He beat out 13 candidates for a seat on the Las Vegas Justice Court. He spent six terms as a justice of the peace before being elected to District Court in 2006.
“I’ve never enjoyed doing anything more than sitting on the bench,” Bixler said. “I’ve been so grateful every single day that this is what I chose to do.”
Bixler prides himself on encouraging potential jurors to serve.
“We need people who are smart,” he said. “We need people who have intellect, people who are emotionally well-grounded and sound.”
Bixler said jurors in the trial of Shafiq Afzali, who videotaped himself sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl, still get together once a year.
The jury found him guilty on all but three charges of the 63 charges he faced.
“Man, they made you proud,” Bixler said. “I guess you could say they were bound together. That was one of the ugliest cases that I could ever imagine.”
Vega, who was first appointed as a Las Vegas Municipal Court judge in 1989, was instrumental in establishing the Nevada Supreme Court’s Committee on the Certification of Court Interpreters.
She worked as an interpreter — sometimes in Bixler’s courtroom — before she started law school.
As a child, Vega was fond of crime mystery stories. While studying interpretation, she became fascinated with law.
“You get to help people resolve difficulties in life,” she said. “Let them be heard. Let them present their version of the story. It let’s them move on with life.”
Last year, she agreed to a public reprimand by the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline for putting her personal schedule ahead of a murder trial.
But veteran lawyers remember her as a judge who made contemplative and thoughtful rulings.
A few years ago, she also made one of the more unusual decisions.
At trial in Vega’s courtroom on the 16th floor of the Regional Justice Center, Nicky Alvarez would not stop shouting during witness testimony.
“I’m innocent,” yelled Alvarez, who was on trial for possessing a controlled substance with intent to sell. “This is a kangaroo court.”
The judge wanted to make sure a court reporter could transcribe an accurate record of the proceedings.
Vega warned Alvarez that she would “take steps to control his outbursts if he couldn’t control himself.”
“I’ll be good,” Alvarez told her.
Yet, as the trial continued, he would shout again.
“So I ended up duct-taping his mouth,” Vega said.
Alvarez’s lawyer told the judge the two needed to speak, so Vega gave him a paper and pencil to write notes.
Suddenly, Alvarez heard more testimony he didn’t like, rose from his seat and ripped the tape off his mouth.
“That’s not the way it happened,” he yelled. “You’re a liar.”
He looked up at the judge and realized what he had done before sheepishly slumping back in his chair and placing the tape back over his mouth.
Vega had him handcuffed.
The Nevada Supreme Court watched a video of the trial and affirmed the judge’s decision.
“What else am I going to do?” Vega said. “If I’m going to get this trial done, I’ve got to do it some way.”
Alvarez was sentenced in late 2010.
“He apologized for having been so disruptive during the trial,” Vega said. “And he asked me for leniency.”
Vega gave him between 13 and 34 months in prison.
“Usually when I give somebody a caution, they heed it,” she said.
Contact reporter David Ferrara at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-1039. Find him on Twitter: @randompoker