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Lloyd George, longtime federal judge in Las Vegas, dead at 90

Updated October 7, 2020 - 10:47 pm

Lloyd D. George, a revered longtime U.S. district judge for Nevada who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan and for whom a downtown Las Vegas courthouse is named, died Wednesday at age 90.

His death was confirmed by Henderson Justice of the Peace Stephen George, his son, who said he spoke with his father every day.

“He certainly gave me great direction,” Stephen George said. “And I recognized early on that he was always right. If I went in that direction, I knew everything was going to be good.”

Lloyd George was born Feb. 22, 1930, in Montpelier, Idaho. He grew up and attended high school in Las Vegas, having arrived in the valley in early childhood.

He attended Fifth Street Grammar School, which became a county building, and was class president at the old Las Vegas High School, now Las Vegas Academy of the Arts, which stands a block from the federal building that now bears his name.

Even as a young man, George was known for earnestness. Former U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., described an errant errand George once did for Frank Sinatra as an example.

In 2009, Bryan told of how the singer once asked George, who was working a summer job as a Sands lifeguard, for a screwdriver. George, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who never drank alcohol, left the pool area and headed to the engineering department to heed the request.

“Lloyd George brought Sinatra a screwdriver,” Bryan said. Just not the kind Sinatra wanted.

George graduated from Brigham Young University with a bachelor’s degree in business management, and the University of California, Berkeley law school.

He served as an Air Force fighter pilot from 1954 to 1958. He was admitted to the Nevada bar in 1961 and was in private practice as an attorney for 13 years before being named to the bankruptcy court in 1974.

George served 10 years as a bankruptcy judge, helping create bankruptcy appellate panels that permit panels of three bankruptcy judges to hear appeals directly from bankruptcy courts.

Nomination to U.S. District Court

In 1984, Sen. Paul Laxalt, R-Nev., recommended George for the District Court job to replace retiring federal Judge Roger Foley.

“I’ve had occasion to appoint many judges,” Laxalt told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that year. “Ordinarily those can be very controversial and often have serious downsides. I can say without qualification that with the appointment of this man I’ve had nothing but compliments … absolutely no criticism.”

In a 1984 interview after the U.S. Senate confirmed him for the District Court, George said he grasped how jurists could change lives.

“I think probably one of the hardest things for a judge who sits on criminal cases is the problem of sentencing,” he said. “A court may make or break a life, depending on the approach taken.”

Howard McKibben was appointed to the Nevada bench by Reagan the same year as George.

McKibben, who serves as a senior U.S. district judge, said Wednesday that he considered George “a great friend, colleague and mentor.”

The two spoke about a month ago, reminiscing about their early days on the court and sharing a few laughs.

“On the bench, he gave meaning to the words ‘justice for all,’ ” McKibben said. “He always acted with respect and humility for others. He loved life, he loved the law and most importantly, he loved his family. … Judge George will be missed, but his legacy will live on through the brilliant career he had on the federal bench and his outstanding efforts to defend, preserve and protect the rule of law both in our country and abroad. He truly represented the very best of our profession.”

From 1987 to 1990, George was the U.S. Judicial Conference’s bankruptcy rules committee chairman. From 1990 to 1993, he was chairman of the conference’s bankruptcy system administration committee. In 1990, he was named chief federal judge for Nevada.

Mark ‘left around the world’

Starting in 1993, the International Judicial Relations Committee tapped George’s aptitude for the judiciary organization. On the committee, he joined judicial colleagues from other nations in discussing constitutional issues and court structure in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. From 1991 to 2002, George traveled on assignment throughout the former Soviet Union, visiting Moscow and the former Soviet republics Tajikistan, Belarus and Poland.

Veteran Las Vegas attorney John Mowbray said George was a mentor and friend for decades. He recalled George hosting foreign judges, helping build court systems abroad and welcoming new U.S. citizens at the federal courthouse.

“His mark will be left around the world,” Mowbray said. “When our legends pass on, we try to do what they would have done: try to make Nevada a better place, make our country a better place.”

George also served on the Federal Judicial Center, the federal judiciary’s research arm, joining former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger.

George, who took senior judge status in 1997 at age 67, ruled on many cases over his long career, some of which were quintessentially Las Vegas.

In 1986, he declared a mistrial in the racketeering case of mobster Anthony “The Ant” Spilotro, who had been accused with other reputed organized crime figures of skimming money from the Stardust and Fremont.

George declared the mistrial even though jurors produced notes showing they had reached verdicts on some of the 37 charges. Later that year, the bodies of Spilotro and his brother Michael were discovered buried in an Indiana cornfield about 70 miles from Chicago.

Defense attorney Rick Wright said he worked on the first bench trial that George handled as a U.S. district judge.

“I know few people who were more worthy of becoming a federal judge,” Wright said, acknowledging that George did not rule in his favor in that first trial. “As a person, I’ve never met anyone quite as unassuming and decent and considerate. I think of him as small in stature and a giant in character. Just a really decent, great judge, a remarkable citizen.”

In 2009, George decided, in a case against rival Sinatra tribute shows, that the name “Rat Pack” couldn’t be appropriated for exclusive use and wasn’t subject to trademark protection.

And in 2013, he issued an order authorizing the federal Bureau of Land Management to impound the cattle on Cliven Bundy’s Bunkerville ranch after the rancher was accused of failing to pay grazing fees.

Fixture in Nevada legal community

Away from court, George was active in the community. He visited College of Southern Nevada history classes to relate how his family arrived before Hoover Dam was finished and how the valley grew and changed. In a 2008 tribute to George and his wife, LaPrele, entered into the congressional record, former U.S. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., praised the jurist and his wife for contributing to the community.

“Judge George is a fixture in the Nevada legal community, but his reputation extends beyond the walls of his courthouse and beyond the borders of the United States,” Ensign said. “He has lectured on legal topics nationally and internationally and often serves as an ambassador, showing foreign dignitaries around the courthouse and introducing them to Southern Nevada.”

George served for a time as president of the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the Clark County Association for Retarded Children, which became Opportunity Village. He also served on the Federal Bar Association of Clark County and the Professional Association of Southern Nevada.

He won many awards, including the Brigham Young University Alumni Distinguished Service Award; at the university’s 2001 commencement, George received the Presidential Citation. He also won the Notre Dame Club’s John C. Mowbray Humanitarian of the Year Award, the Jensen Public Service Award from Boalt Hall, University of California and the Boy Scouts of America Silver Beaver Award.

George is survived by his wife, LaPrele, four children, 12 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

Before his health began to decline in May, George continued to work at the courthouse as a senior judge two or three times a week, his son said, noting that he “never actually did retire.”

A few weeks ago, on one of the judge’s more lucid days, his son drove him to the federal courthouse at 333 Las Vegas Blvd. South, with its articulated column and black and white granite benches under a massive steel awning. Carved into a beige wall along the steps: Lloyd D. George.

“I said, ‘Dad, read the name,’” Stephen George said, pausing, “‘on that building.’ And he looked over at me and said, ‘Is that me?’”

“And I said, ‘That is you.’ And I’ve never seen a bigger smile on his face.”

They sat in the car for a few moments, before driving to Lloyd George’s childhood home on Third Street and Charleston Boulevard, where he remembered playing football with friends on an old dirt road, his son said.

“I felt very fortunate to be a part of his life, the luckiest son on Earth,” Stephen George said. “He was the most caring person with the biggest heart I’ve ever known.”

The downtown courthouse was built for $97 million and opened in 2000.

In September 1998, after the House of Representatives followed the Senate’s lead and approved a bill to name the building for Lloyd George, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., praised the jurist.

“Now that the House has acted on this bill, Judge George will finally get the recognition he deserves,” Reid told The Associated Press. “No one on the bench in Nevada has received more praise for his work and sense of fairness than Chief Judge George.”

George also has an accolade, the State Bar of Nevada’s Professionalism Award, and a contest, UNLV’s Bankruptcy Moot Court Competition, named in his honor.

Now a senior U.S. district judge, Kent Dawson was appointed to the federal bench the same year the courthouse opened.

“It is a fitting tribute that the building is so named,” Dawson said. “One of the good things about our community is that a lot of people got to know him. It is good that someone was there to recognize the contribution he made.”

Contact David Ferrara at dferrara@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039. Follow @randompoker on Twitter.

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