The Honorable Steve C. Jones
The Athens native took on two new roles in 2011—U.S. district judge and president of UGA’s Alumni Association
Sometime in the late ’90s, Steve C. Jones (BBA ’78, JD ’87) and Dink NeSmith (ABJ ’70) were returning to Athens from Atlanta after a meeting of the state Judicial Qualifications Commission. Jones, then a Georgia Superior Court judge for the Western Judicial Circuit, and NeSmith, co-owner and president of Community Newspapers Inc., both served on the commission, the disciplinary board for Georgia’s 1,400 judges. They’d gotten in the habit of carpooling, which allowed them to get to know each other and also conduct extensive research on barbecue joints. On this particular day the two were deep in conversation, rehashing the events of the previous meeting, when flashing blue lights appeared behind them. Jones, who was driving, pulled over.
“The officer said, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s Judge Jones! You really need to slow down,’” NeSmith says. “The officer was going to let him go on, and then the judge said, ‘No, no, I think you’ll need to be giving me that ticket, thank you very much, and I will slow down.’”
That story, says NeSmith, explains a lot about Judge Jones.
“That speaks of the person he is,” NeSmith says. “He doesn’t want any special favors.”
On a sweltering August day, the courtroom on the 19th floor of Atlanta’s Richard B. Russell Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse is cool and silent. No one moves, speaks or even breathes loudly. All eyes are on Steve Jones—now a U.S. district judge for the Northern District of Georgia—as he comes to a decision. He’s presiding over a sentencing for a defendant who has been deported twice before but illegally entered the United States again to take care of her ailing mother. Jones has listened to the prosecution and the defense, and he’s offered the defendant a chance to speak. Now it’s time for his decision.
After a full 20 seconds of silence, Jones gives the sentence. As he explains his decision—more than three years of prison time—he seems sympathetic yet firm. There are no outward reactions from lawyers, the defendant or the defendant’s family, but the atmosphere is different. Lives have been changed.
Jones’ courtroom and chambers are housed in the Richard B. Russell Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in downtown Atlanta.
Back in his chambers Jones confirms that sentencings are challenging, requiring a great deal of consideration before and during the process.
“When it comes to the law, you’re always dealing with people,” he says. “The repercussions of defendants’ actions are not isolated only to them. Their actions have an effect on their family members and victims, as well.”
These are the kinds of decisions Jones will continue to face in his new role as a federal judge, which began when he received his commission March 3 after a July 2010 nomination by President Barack Obama and a February confirmation by the Senate.
Jones is well qualified, having begun his career as an assistant district attorney before serving as a municipal court judge in Athens-Clarke County from 1993-95 and then getting appointed in 1995 as a Georgia Superior Court judge for the Western Judicial Circuit. Although he’s hearing different kinds of cases now—including patent law, civil rights and Fair Labor Standards Act—Jones says the job is the same.
“You’re trying to get to the truth. The judge is impartial—you’re not pro-plaintiff, you’re not pro-defense, you’re not pro-prosecution,” he says. “You’re just trying to make sure the case is conducted in a fair way, and you’re trying to get to the truth, and you’re dealing with human beings.”
Jones is the right man for that job, according to his friends and former colleagues.
“Steve Jones is just a dear friend,” NeSmith says. “But if you look beneath that heavy black robe what you’d find is a real person who has a great heart, a great sense of what’s right and a tremendous passion for making the world a better place. When I first got to know him I said to myself ‘Now here is a future federal judge,’ because he represents all of the good things that you would want on the bench.”
UGA School of Law Dean Rebecca White got to know Jones through his involvement with the law school.
“When you’re a superior court judge for as long as he was, you have to make difficult decisions and you have to make people unhappy,” White says. “Despite all of that, he is someone who I think is beloved, and I don’t think that’s too strong a word.”
“There’s not anybody that I know of that’s ever said anything negative about him,” says former colleague and Superior Court Chief Judge Lawton Stephens (JD ’81).
“I used to call him all the time. In fact I called him yesterday. I had a question about an ethical circumstance, and he’s the first person I think of,” he says. “If I’ve got an ethical issue or a legal issue where there’s not a lot of law on it, I pick up the phone and call him.”
A couple of weeks later, Jones is back in Athens and dealing with some of the most stubborn creatures in his life—and they’re not lawyers. Though he now resides in Fulton County, Jones and wife Lillian Kincey (EdS ’94) kept their property in the Athens area. It’s a large piece of land, and on the advice of friends Jones acquired goats and miniature donkeys to keep the grass under control. He’s armed with a pail of feed and cut-up nectarines, but they’re extremely shy with strangers around and Jones has to work hard to coax them close. He may be used to wielding a lot of power, but he shows no signs of irritation at their lack of cooperation. In fact, he seems to appreciate their independence.
“They don’t care whether you’re a judge, they don’t care what you do in life, they just like me for me,” Jones says. “They’re good therapy.”
It’s a down-home sentiment, but one that fits. Jones grew up in Athens, raised by a single mother, Katie Jones, who worked in the sewing factories that populated the area at the time. He easily recites the three most important lessons she taught him: (1) Work hard. (2) Prepare yourself for every opportunity. (3) Treat people with respect, no matter who they are.
Jones’ career proves that he learned lessons one and two, and his demeanor is evidence that he took lesson three to heart. Despite his accomplishments, Jones presents himself as ordinary folk—the kind of guy you could drink a beer with or introduce to your grandmother. If you didn’t ask, he’d probably never tell you about his work.
“Right,” Lawton Stephens says. “Because he’s interested in you.”
Jones would just as soon talk about his goats, and he’s had to talk about them since his investiture in March. The goats had flown under the radar until that ceremony, when Stephens revealed that they’re named after Supreme Court justices. Since then Jones has steadfastly refused to tell which justices they’re named after because he doesn’t want to appear impartial. He will, however, say that he means it as a compliment.
After becoming a federal judge, Jones and his wife moved to Atlanta but kept their Athens-area property and the goats and donkeys that keep the grass under control. The donkeys are named Oscar and Jenny; the goats are named after Supreme Court justices, but Jones won’t reveal which ones.
And compliments are something that Jones has heard a lot of since he was nominated and confirmed as a federal judge. His investiture was attended by UGA Pres. Michael F. Adams, football Head Coach Mark Richt, the entire bench of the Georgia Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The courtroom in the Russell Building was packed, with overflow audience watching via closed-circuit television in another room. A couple of months later, a reception held in Athens drew 300 that wanted to pay tribute to Jones and thank him for his service to the community.
Jones is perhaps best known for serving as chairman of Partners for a Prosperous Athens, an anti-poverty organization created in 2006. The initial meeting drew more than 750 people, and ideas that grew out of the program forged new partnerships between government, higher education and local businesses. J.J. Harris Elementary School, run in partnership with UGA’s College of Education, gives children individualized instruction while providing professional learning opportunities for UGA faculty and students. The Athens Community Career Academy allows high school students to take career-themed courses, participate in internships and enroll in college courses. And the Athens Area Community Foundation connects donors with local organizations that match their interests.
“I think it’s probably one of the most rewarding things I’ve done,” Jones says.
He stepped down after three years, but PPA—now known as OneAthens—continues its work. And Jones continues to urge others to get involved in their community.
“Your community is only as good as the people that live in it,” he says. “Whether you’re living with five million people or you’re living with 500, people make the community.”
Jones sees it as a two-way street. Whether he’s speaking in public or one on one, when he’s the topic of discussion he often refers to himself in the third person. It’s not because he thinks of himself as larger than life. It’s because he recognizes that he’s the product of not just his family but of the larger community.
“Steve Jones didn’t do this. It is every one of you people who helped raise me,” he told the crowd at the Athens celebration.
“My foundation is right here in Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties. No matter where I go, my foundation is here, and for that, I love you all and thank you all.”
When he was approached two years ago about leading UGA’s Alumni Association, Steve Jones had no idea that when the time came he would also be starting a new career as a federal judge. But on July 1, despite the less-than-ideal timing, he assumed the duties of Alumni Association president. Since then he’s made a number of appearances on behalf of the Alumni Association, which suits him just fine.
“I’m going to tell you up front that I think the greatest university in the world is the University of Georgia,” he says.
And though he’s a big fan of Georgia sports, he’s also impressed with how UGA’s influence reaches into the community beyond campus.
“That’s what I think the university should do, especially a land grant university—use that brain power and resources to help make the state and citizens of the state improve,” he says. “I saw it firsthand with OneAthens.”
UGA is growing in a way that’s making it a distinguished university, he says. And he wants to get UGA alumni—all 270,000 of them—involved in helping to continue that growth.
“I think we have a responsibility to go back and do what we can to help out,” he says.
He figures that if he can get them back on campus for a visit, it’ll be easy.
“I feel if you come get involved in that UGA spirit, it’ll grow,” he says. “And plus, you’re part of the family… And the family needs to get together every once in a while.”
Steve Jones will serve as the head of UGA’s alumni family for the next two years, and he’ll be spending a lot of time on the road between Atlanta and Athens. But don’t worry—he learned his lesson about speeding during that drive with NeSmith years ago.
“Since then, I try to make sure I drive really slow,” he says.