Colleagues remember Judge Bill Jones: A court visionary who got things done

Mecklenburg Judge Bill Jones revamped the apparatus of justice for children and families here and around the country. He died this week at age 69
Mecklenburg Judge Bill Jones revamped the apparatus of justice for children and families here and around the country. He died this week at age 69 Observer File Photo

Typically, there are the visionaries. Then there are the people who get things done.

In Judge Bill Jones, friends and peers say, those roles were inseparable.

“It’s rare that you find both in the same man,” says Mecklenburg County District Judge Lou Trosch. “Bill was effective in the courtroom calling balls and strikes. But he was more effective when he took off his robes and would go out in the community and call people together to get something done.”

Jones, who died this week at age 69, leaves a legacy of trying to make Mecklenburg County’s courtrooms more thoughtful and accessible to the thousands of residents who visit them each year.

His passions were children and family law. For three decades, the county’s former chief District Court judge played a leading role in establishing one of the state’s first family courts to better handle divorces, custody battles and other domestic issues. He also helped start the Children’s Law Center to protect the rights of young people caught up in the legal system.

Nationally, he worked with other judges to improve the apparatus of family and juvenile justice in dozens of states.

In 1990, the West Virginia native and Davidson College graduate was selected the nation’s top juvenile judge “for his outstanding work to better conditions for North Carolina’s abused and neglected children.” In retirement, he continued working with projects for battered women and juvenile justice issues.

Last August, when the retired judge had begun being overtaken by the Alzheimer’s symptoms and other health problems that would eventually take his life, Jones was honored publicly for the last time – specifically for his role in bridging the gaps between child advocacy and domestic violence. Trosch, who considered Jones a mentor, used the occasion to describe his former boss in a more personal way.

“Bill Jones is my hero,” the younger judge said.

After Jones’ death this week, Trosch elaborated in an interview.

“His hand really is in most of what we do that we now take for granted,” he said. “Suffice to say he transformed our juvenile courts from backwaters to innovative laboratories for change. He was a giant, but he didn’t work alone. ... He practiced the art of collaboration.”

In the early 1990s, Jones helped author guides that laid out rules for juvenile judges and domestic violence courts. Trosch said Jones single-handedly ended the animus between child advocates and domestic violence groups so women in Mecklenburg County could report being abused without worrying whether they’d lose custody of their children.

As chief District Court judge, Jones urged Trosch and his other judicial colleagues to innovate – to marry the best practices from other courtrooms with their own ideas on improving the course of justice.

“The taxpayers of this community got their money’s worth,” said Charlotte attorney Ed Hinson, a longtime friend. “He balanced the qualities of justice and mercy.”

Jones’ 25 years on the Mecklenburg bench ended abruptly in 2001. At the time, Jones was the subject of a state investigation for not disclosing that he owned a mountain home with an attorney involved in a divorce case in his courtroom. The judge later said he had revealed the business relationship with the attorney years earlier and thought it was common knowledge. But he was removed from the case and retired shortly afterward. Subsequent court rulings found that Jones had shown no bias or broken any ethics rules during his handling of the case.

Jones, whose West Virginia ties were rooted in small-town life, came to the Charlotte area in 1964 as a sophomore transfer student to Davidson. He graduated from the UNC law school in 1970, a year after he married Chris Sprenkle, his spouse for 46 years.

Back in Charlotte, he practiced civil rights law for a time before becoming one of the county’s first public defenders. He was elected a district judge in 1976. He became chief district judge in 1998 and held that title until his retirement.

In between, he helped start the county’s guardian ad litum program, which provides legal advocates for children, and the Council for Children’s Rights. He also instituted the practice of assigning a juvenile court judge to hear a case from beginning to end. Before, potentially life-changing decisions affecting families and children were frequently handed off among jurists.

Several of the Mecklenburg programs he helped put in place became statewide and national models. In 1984, Esquire magazine included Jones among the “Men and Women Under 40 who are Changing America.”

After his retirement, Jones also oversaw the court-ordered changes in the juvenile systems of Georgia and New York. In all, he worked with the court systems in 26 states to improve their protection of children.

As part of his lifelong love of the outdoors, Jones was a charter member of “The Swamp Group,” a collection of lawyers and judges who canoed as far away as Canada but mostly stuck the black-water rivers of the Carolinas. Charlotte attorney John Gresham said Jones liked to leave the paddling to others while he sat in the bow of the canoe and searched for birds. His last trip – with his son Brian about four years ago – took place after the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Trosch said his former boss would return from conferences and vacations with stacks of paper and pamphlets.

“I’ve got 20 new ideas,” he’d say. Staff writer Jim Morrill contributed.

Gordon: 704-358-5095