Robey Willis retires
Long-time Carson City crossing guard George Horton made a special visit to Justice Court on Thursday and quietly took a seat in the back.
When Judge Robey Willis glanced up during traffic court proceedings caught a glimpse of Horton he smiled broadly.
At Horton’s first chance, he jumped up.
He came to bid the judge a farewell.
“You’re a very nice judge,” said Horton shaking Willis’ hand.
“You’ve done a wonderful job as a crossing guard out there, George,” said Willis, known as much for his no-nonsense rulings from the bench as his ironclad memory.
“He’ll just put you in jail, but he’s a good judge,” Horton said to no one in particular as he left.
After 27 years on the bench, five as a juvenile magistrate and 22 as a justice of the peace, Willis, 68, has decided to hang up the black robe.
The prospect is not daunting or sad.
“I’m excited,” said the longest-sitting judge to ever grace a lower court bench in the city. “I’ll find things to do.”
When Deputy Public Defender Maria Pence, one of eight being considered to fill Willis’ vacant seat, appeared before him for a final time Thursday morning, she also noted his departure.
“Judge, it’s been a pleasure,” she said.
Carson City Defense Attorney Bill Cole appearing a final time before Willis himself, also bid adieu to the man he’s been battling in front of for more than two decades.
“One year – I’ll never forget this – on Christmas Eve you were in between wives,” Willis reminisced as those in the gallery laughed. “You had a client in on a prelim. Five o’clock came and I said, ‘We’re all going home for Christmas Eve,’ and you said ‘Why? I don’t have anyone to go home to.'”
“Did we finish the prelim?” asked an amused Cole. “Did you bind him over as usual?”
Throughout the day, a humble Willis smiled and shook the hands of those he’s known for years. But he reminded many, in six months he would be back as a senior court judge.
Born in Bellingham, Wash., and raised in Seattle, it was a teaching job with the federal government that brought Willis to Carson City. He taught history and civics at Stewart Indian School where he also coached the school’s boxing program. In 1985 he took a position as the juvenile magistrate for Carson City.
When Judge John Ray resigned, Willis was appointed to the justice court bench in 1989.
“I taught civics and history and then I got to put them into practice,” he said.
He’s heard “thousands and thousands of cases,” he said, and on Thursday Clerk Recorder Alan Glover tallied up the weddings Willis has officiated over the years: 4,636.
“In some families I’ve had three generations appear before me (in criminal court),” he noted sadly. “I get a lot of repeat customers.”
His memory has served him well over the years, much to the chagrin of those who have appeared before him.
“I know there are people a lot more brilliant than I am, a lot smarter, but I got a memory,” he said.
On Thursday, Willis noted to one man before him on a DUI charge, “The first time I saw you was 15 years ago on a minor consuming charge and it’s been alcohol problems ever since.”
The substance abuse issues, which make up most of the cases he’s heard over the years, hit him the hardest.
“I suppose I care because when I was growing up my dad had a bad drinking problem,” he said.
But the cases that haunt Willis, also haunt most of the old-timers in Carson City.
Of notorious 2006 case of two children who’d been locked in a bathroom on Como Street for five years, he said, “That was systematic torture.”
In a rare display of anger, Willis lashed out at the time at the defendants after hearing the evidence during their preliminary hearing.
“I can’t help but say animals treat their children better than this,” Willis spat after binding them over to district court. “I haven’t seen anyone this abused since I saw pictures of those poor survivors in those concentration camps.
“I’m totally disgusted there are human beings on the face of this earth just like you people.”
“There were only two times I got angry,” he said Thursday, “and that was one of them.”
For his successor, Willis has some advice: Be even tempered, not verbose, make quick decisions, do not become arrogant and have a sense of humor.
“You’ve got to have a sense of humor,” he said.
This morning Willis’ routine will be almost the same. He’ll wake at 5:30 a.m., have a small breakfast and work out. But instead of going to the courthouse like he has for 27 years, he’ll find something else to do. There’s plenty else to do.
“I’ll be 69 years old this year and I really want to have some time to do things with my wife and family and see my grandkids grow up,” he said. “It’s been a good ride.”