Though BJ, Kennedy and Brendan Jones watched dad Bernard’s investiture as a United States District Judge with pride, they were quick to remind him they’re famous in their own right, recently featured on MetroFamily’s March 2020 cover.
“They tell me they’ll even autograph a copy for me,” laughs Bernard Jones, “reminding me where I am in the pecking order.”
Even on one of the most important professional days in Jones’ career, punctuated by speeches from fellow U.S. district judges, U.S. Senator James Lankford, former Gov. Mary Fallin and Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt, Jones indulged his children in sharing the spotlight, speaking praise over them and eagerly inviting their participation in his official robing.
BJ, Kennedy and Bernard’s high energy and happy voices in an often stoic courtroom gave the February ceremonial investiture a fittingly celebratory air. One of the youngest of the 12 active judges for the Western District of Oklahoma, Jones received judicial commission on Dec. 31, 2019 after being confirmed by an almost unheard of 91 to 3 vote from the U.S. Senate. Senator James Lankford noted the only votes not in favor of Jones were senators absent while on the presidential campaign trail. Former Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin added that Jones’ nomination by President Trump was met with no opposition, another example of bipartisan support.
Jones’ appointment is a testament to his impressive judicial career, including a controversial case involving a high school football playoff game, and his reputation for always ascribing to the rule of the law. But his most noteworthy role has always been husband and dad. As a dad, an attorney and a jurist, Jones has focused his life on how he can best serve others, and he is called to pass that perspective to his three kids.
“They have opportunities we didn’t have,” said Jones of his children compared to his and wife Mautra’s childhoods. “I want my children to benefit from that but also want them to realize they have an obligation to be of service to others.”
Making a difference
Jones grew up in northeast Oklahoma City, graduating from Bishop McGuinness High School and earning his undergraduate degree at Southern Methodist University and juris doctorate from Notre Dame Law School. Though Jones said at the time he wanted a one-way ticket out of Oklahoma, watching the capital city transform thanks to MAPS began to change his mind about Oklahoma City becoming a place he could return to.
“At 5 p.m. on a Friday, Oklahoma City used to be a ghost town,” recalls Jones. “Now with the housing options, restaurants, parks, the arts, opportunities for business and families, I stand in awe at the investment we are making. It’s a testament to our leadership but also to our beliefs in ourselves as a city.”
After working in a Columbus law firm for a few years, Jones was recruited to return to Oklahoma City to work for McAfee & Taft and then served as a dean for Oklahoma City University School of Law. Jones served the state of Oklahoma first as a district judge for Oklahoma’s seventh judicial district, overseeing, initially, the family and domestic relations docket and later the civil docket. Jones has always approached his judicial position with the intent to make a difference, not just in terms of his rulings but in the relationships people develop with the court.
“I want everyone, regardless of the case outcome, to leave feeling as if they were treated with dignity and respect,” said Jones. “I want them to know [I] treated them like a person and was not influenced by anything other than the law.”
Throughout Jones’ career, he’s aspired to treat everyone equally using the rule of the law as his measure, but, once a ruling has been determined, that doesn’t negate his commitment to offer compassion in his delivery. Jones is obligated to apply the law and mandate punishment as necessary, but he believes he also has a responsibility to communicate that in a way that will ultimately help those who find themselves in his courtroom.
“It’s not just about penalizing but rehabilitation,” Jones explained of his hope to positively influence citizens toward growing into productive members of society.
Doing what is right
While Jones was a state district judge, a 2014 case over a high school football playoff game between Douglass and Locust Grove drew national attention. The game was allegedly botched by referees, resulting in Douglass’ loss, so Oklahoma City Public School District took the case to court to request the game be replayed.
Jones denied the request to replay the game, ultimately determining that a ruling on the game was out of the jurisdiction of a courtroom, a decision that, though not popular, was praised by Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt at Jones’ investiture.
“Upholding the rule of the law can be inconvenient, time consuming and not result in a popular outcome,” said Holt. “I have admiration for Bernard Jones on many levels, including his respect for the rule of law and how he took that pressure, that extra burden of facing voters, with that message that the rule of law matters.”
Jones remembers that electrified time in his career as he processed the case, with racial undertones and hostilities amid a call from many in the community to “let the kids play.” He knew no matter his decision he’d be celebrated by some and vilified by others, but that reality didn’t play into his ruling.
“I had a lot of people in the profession say to ignore the law, but our job is not one where we ought to be concerned with what is popular but about doing what is right and what the law requires,” said Jones. “Folks were surprised and disappointed but what people cannot say was that my decision was not consistent with the law. It was a challenging and difficult day, and still there are folks who aren’t happy, but it was right not only from a legal perspective but from a practical one, and that’s what I pride myself on.”
Dean Emeritus Lawrence K. Hellman from OCU School of Law spoke at Jones’ investiture of his work ethic, unlimited energy, determination and wisdom beyond his years. He laughingly added that the only problem, both when Jones was on faculty at OCU and still today, is that Jones is so young.
“It has been a joy to watch his judicial career,” said Hellman. “He has unlimited devotion to the values of judiciary independence, the rule of law and democracy. He’s able to deliver unpleasant rulings without being unpleasant.”
Jones entered federal judicial service in 2015, appointed a U.S. magistrate judge, the first African American appointed to this position in Oklahoma. He held this position until his 2019 appointment to federal district court service. Jones is the second African American to hold this position in Oklahoma, following mentor and friend former Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange. Jones’ family lived around the corner from LaGrange when he was a child, and she attended high school with his dad. Jones has long admired her career and is grateful for the trails she’s blazed.
“She and I have a series of firsts under our belts, but we have never been interested in or focused on being first,” said Jones. “We want to ensure that we’re not the last. She led a great example for me, and it’s one I intend to build on.”
Lankford remarked that the progression to become a U.S. district judge, from initial consideration to presidential nomination to Senate confirmation, is a long, hard process, commending Jones and his wife and children for accepting the challenges. And Jones is quick to credit his family for believing in him when he hasn’t believed in himself. He and Mautra, vice president of institutional advancement and external affairs for Langston University, both have demanding careers, which Jones eloquently calls vocations of service.
“We come from humble beginnings,” said Jones. “We want to do our part to ensure others have similar opportunities.”
Just as Mautra attends court functions regularly, Jones often meets Langston students. As parents, in their careers and as community leaders, the duo recognizes that working together expands their opportunities for service and the impact they are able to make on the world around them.
In addition to teaching their three kids the value in helping others, the Jones parents impart their faith and the importance of working hard.
“Those were the things impressed upon me that have helped me be a better judge and better member of society,” said Jones.
As Jones strives to set a good example for his kids, he’s also a playful dad, quick to listen and ever affirming of the uniqueness his children possess.
“What truly brings me joy is the fact that they are so inquisitive and so empathetic,” said Jones.
The Jones children have, truly, never met a stranger, and are attuned to the realities of the world, both good and bad, thanks to parents intent upon raising fellow citizens who will give back.
“They really see people and want them to succeed,” marvels Jones. “I love that about them. They are thoughtful children and have realized early on that it’s not just about them.”