Arkansas' newest bankruptcy judge, Phyllis M. Jones, was formally sworn in Friday at a ceremony at the Richard Sheppard Arnold United States Courthouse in downtown Little Rock.
Jones, 58, was appointed to the position on Jan. 7, replacing U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Audrey Evans, who retired on Dec. 31 but was among those who showed up Friday to welcome Jones to the bench.
Jones' path to becoming a judge was described by her former law partner, Roger Rowe, as "a great journey" that frequently tested her limits but never deterred her from moving forward.
"Phyllis was not born into what we would call a 'privileged' family," Rowe told spectators who crowded into a ceremonial courtroom on the courthouse's second floor. He noted that her parents didn't attend college, and that her father even had to quit high school before graduating to help out after his own father had a cerebral hemorrhage.
But at age 30, while working as a secretary for U.S. Bankruptcy Judge James Mixon, now deceased, the determined single mother of a 3-year-old daughter, Michelle, began attending college at night, first with financial assistance from her father, and then through a scholarship that was repeatedly renewed.
It took her five years of attending college at night while working full time during the day to get her accounting degree, and she passed the Certified Public Accountant exam on her first try, a rarity cited by many speakers at Friday's ceremony, but that Jones herself chalked up to simply not having time to study for it twice.
Encouraged by Mixon, one of her mentors, Jones then decided to seek a law degree and again began attending night classes while working during the day. Eventually she became Mixon's judicial assistant, taking on the duties of a law clerk and considered an expert in bankruptcy law even before she earned her juris doctorate, Rowe said.
U.S. Circuit Judge Duane Benton of Kansas City, Mo., who sits on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and led the committee that recommended Jones as Evans' replacement from a long list of applicants from across the country, recalled being the first person to call her "Judge Jones." Benton, who is also a certified public accountant, said he called Jones to inform her of her selection as she traveled back to Arkansas from a meeting with all the 8th Circuit judges in Kansas City. The 8th Circuit oversees all bankruptcy judges in its seven-state jurisdiction, including Arkansas.
With a wink, he told Jones he remembered her being "very emotional" for an accountant.
He also told the audience, "This is proof of the axiom, 'Be nice to the secretary.'"
Richard Taylor, chief bankruptcy judge in Arkansas, joked that he first met Jones 30 years ago, "and I didn't see this coming."
The well-known cat lover, who even keeps a cat in his chambers, said he figured then that "one of us would grow old surrounded by cats. I just didn't know it was going to be me."
He described Jones as having "silent strength" that will serve her well during her 14-year term.
After earning her law degree, Jones worked for four years at the Wright, Lindsey and Jennings law firm in Little Rock, practicing commercial litigation. She later became a partner in the Lax, Vaughan, Fortson, Rowe & Threet firm, where she spent 12 years handling commercial litigation, including bankruptcy and debtor/creditor litigation, and commercial lending.
After being sworn in by U.S. Circuit Judge Lavenski Smith of Little Rock, Jones had help being "robed" from her husband, D. Randal Jones; her parents, Jim and Frances Miller; and her daughter, Michelle Moore.
She told the crowd that she is "evidence that the American Dream is alive and well today," and paid a special tribute to her parents and her grandmother.
"I learned to work hard without complaining by watching my mom and dad do the same," she said.
She said her grandmother taught her patience and kindness, adding that she keeps a small photograph of her grandmother on her bench to remind herself of those virtues during tense moments in the courtroom.
Metro on 03/21/2015