First judge of 22nd District closes out distinguished career

Thursday, December 27, 2018

File photo by Andrew Turck

Judge Blair Jones speaks on Feb. 21 at Big Horn County District Court in Hardin during the arraignments of former Hardin High School teacher Nora Block and high school student Uttekaat Birdinground. He served as the first judge of the 22nd Judicial District for 19 years.

For the past three decades, Blair Jones has served the citizens of Stillwater, Carbon and Big Horn counties by bringing justice home.

First came 12 years as a prosecutor with the Stillwater County Attorney’s Office. That was followed by 19 years as the 22nd Judicial District judge – a position from which Jones is retiring in just a handful of days.

A man of deep faith, Jones’ professional life has consisted of a heavy workload that, by the nature of the job, routinely put him in contact with the darker and tragic side of humanity.

Widely respected across the state, Jones has served on the state Sentence Review Board, the Committee of Judicial Conduct and as the chairman of the Judicial Standards Commission during his tenure.

It has all been an experience the Park City resident and father of four grown daughters has relished.

“My faith has helped me to temper the darker side of humanity that is often displayed in court,” Jones told the News last week. “I believe that God gave me this opportunity and I endeavored to employ both justice and mercy in the proper measures to address as best I could the issues and sometimes gripping human trauma displayed in cases brought before me.”

THE JOB

The 22nd Judicial District was created in 1999 in response to growing dockets in Yellowstone County, which is where Stillwater, Carbon and Big Horn cases were being handled. Jones was appointed to the bench by then Gov. Marc Racicot.

The job is a demanding one. Responsible for all three counties, the 22nd Judicial District’s caseload consists of more than 1,200 criminal and civil cases every single year. It also accounts for 1,200 miles traveled between the three jurisdictions every single month.

And then there’s the nature of the work.

People in serious legal trouble. Some for foolish mistakes. Some for egregious behavior. Some for intended malice.

Alcohol and drugs are constant themes, and something Jones often addresses from the bench – urging those before him to do everything they can to free themselves of such addictions and the destruction it can bring to lives.

“I know of where I speak” is a phrase commonly uttered by Jones in court, leaning on nearly two decades of experience on the bench.

And those are just the criminal cases.

Civil cases are the bulk of the court docket and bring a myriad of different problems that are no less troubling – custody battles, breach of contract matters, civil rights, defamation claims, name changes, fraud cases and appeals from lower courts, to name a handful.

Jones often explains from the bench that his job is the constant practice of applying the law fairly in every single situation while protecting the public and the rights of the accused.

“The workload is always a challenge, but I would say that trying to measure out justice tempered by mercy and achieving the correct balance between the two was the most difficult part of the job,” Jones told the News.

But what makes the job difficult are some of the same factors that also make it rewarding.

“The most rewarding part of the job is having the authority to timely correct an injustice that is before you,” said Jones.

And there are some happy cases.

“I always loved adoption proceedings as well. Adding precious children to a family who really wanted them was a joy for me,” said Jones.

WHAT OTHERS SAY

At a send-off ceremony held earlier this month at the courthouse, all six of Jones’ former law clerks either attended in person, or sent notes to be read. The theme was consistent – praise for a judge of integrity they described as fair, equitable, thoughtful and above reproach.

Former clerk Alex Wilson, who came to Montana from working in the inner city of St. Louis, said he had “never seen a hint of bias” in Jones’ work.

“I not only respect the robe. I tremendously respect the man,” said Wilson.

Former clerk Jamie Iguchi’s note said she considers Jones the “compass and guide” of her legal career.

Former clerk Hannah Scott Knudsen said it was Jones’ reputation that drew her to apply to work for him – calling him one of the most respected judges in the state, who rules according to the law.

Perhaps the highest praise came from former clerk Nick Whitaker, who came from Seattle to work for Jones. Whitaker said the judge taught him “how to lead a good life” both professionally and personally. The tall, young lawyer struggled to keep his composure when recounting how Jones helped him during the death of his father. “You’ve been such a good example and steered the ship really well,” Whitaker told Jones.

Court Administrator Kathryn Stanley provided humor and tears. Stanley has worked with Jones for 24 years total, first as a legal secretary for Jones and then in her current position. Stanley struggled when it came her turn to speak, saying she had mixed feelings – happiness for his retirement but at the same time, “it feels like I am losing a best friend.”

ONE PROUD DAUGHTER

Jones’ oldest daughter, Emily, is a practicing attorney in Billings. She was the last to speak at the send-off event. She told those in attendance that her father always had a dream of being a judge. His first effort ended in a loss against Todd Baugh in the 13th Judicial District in Yellowstone County. After Jones’ own father, also an attorney, retired from practice, the would-be judge ran for the office of Stillwater County Attorney, and held that post for 12 years, prosecuting everything from theft to a double-homicide.

Emily was a senior in high school when the 22nd Judicial District was created and her father was appointed to the bench.

Fast-forward several years and Emily was standing before the Montana Supreme Court to be sworn in as an attorney, with her father doing the honors.

“It’s difficult to put into words how special that day was for me,” she said. “Dad and I approached the podium together, and dad told the seven justices: ‘Your honors, today you are looking at one proud father.’” Emily then quoted Proverbs 13:22, which states a good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children. She told her dad that he had done this, leaving his family an inheritance of honor, faithfulness, service and justice.

“Today, you are looking at one proud daughter,” said Emily.

“I JUST LOVE THE PEOPLE OF THIS COUNTY”

Jones’ first order of business at the send-off was expressing his thankfulness for the support he has received over the years. He also made it clear that to apply the law to people’s lives and the consequences that come with that, Jones has no regrets and thanks God for giving him the opportunity to serve.

“Serving these counties has been one of the best things that has happened in my life,” said Jones. “I just love the people of this county.”

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