An attorney and judge who made his community better
I first met the Honorable Steven Nixon through the Eastern Jackson County Bar Association. Many of the lawyers in the eastern part of Jackson County belong to this organization. Before COVID, we had monthly meetings that allowed us to obtain an hour of continuing legal education. The meetings, when we are able to reconvene, are all at noon and are held at various restaurants in this part of the county.
When I first began practicing law, our monthly meetings were held at night. My personal favorite was Stephenson’s Restaurant. Obviously, the food was always good and we had some excellent speakers through the years. The evening meetings became less popular as many of the older lawyers either retired or died.
Those of us who remember the night meetings have reminisced about the good old days when we gathered to share a meal and a post-meal beverage. It was the way we really became acquainted with each other. There was a connection among us that is sadly not as evident among the young lawyers today. Some of my best friendships in the profession came from those monthly meetings.
Steve Nixon was a regular attendee at the meetings. I can remember many a night when we would be sitting around the table in the bar at Stephenson’s. Three of the regulars became judges: J.D. Williamson, Steve and my former partner, Mike Manners. The friendships we developed were deep and meaningful to all of us.
I also knew Steve through the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, commonly known by most lawyers in the state as MATA. We all shared a strong desire to preserve the Seventh Amendment trial by jury and the civil justice system. Steve was a passionate member of MATA until he became a judge in 1998.
Steve ascended to the bench to replace one of the great stalwarts in Eastern Jackson County, Jack Gant. Division 5 was home to Steve for 14 years, and he served the citizens of Jackson County proudly. He also served as the presiding judge of the entire Circuit Court, which is a thankless job. I think everyone who tried a case in front of him believed they received a fair trial.
Steve also left his mark on the Circuit Court of Jackson County in a way that benefits everyone who lives east of Blue Ridge Boulevard and has to access the legal system. More than half of the population of Jackson County now resides in the eastern venue. There was a time when there was no eastern venue and the leaders of the Eastern Jackson County Bar Association were constantly struggling to ensure that services were available to the lawyers and their clients in the Independence courthouse.
I spent the 20 twenty years of my career in an office less than 100 feet from the front door of the courthouse. Thus, it was important to be able to practice in the Independence courthouse.
Steve was a president of the EJCBA at a critical time. Judge Gant was still on the bench and was a fierce defender of the concept of making the courthouse in the county seat available to the citizens of Jackson County; Independence is the county seat by the way. Judge Gant had served in the Missouri Senate several terms and still had many friends in the Missouri Capitol.
It was decided that if the citizens of Eastern Jackson County were to have unfettered access to the Independence courthouse, it was going to take legislation. Steve and others, along with Judge Gant, fought the good fight and spent a lot of time in Jefferson City getting legislation passed in 1985 that created the eastern venue of Jackson County.
An obstacle to creation of a separate venue was the challenge to the jury pool. There were more minority citizens in the western venue and a constitutional challenge to separate venue was threatened if there was a separate jury pool. A compromise was reached that provided for a common jury pool, which is why citizens in the east have to go to KC for jury duty and vice versa.
Steve Nixon will always be remembered by those of us who were around in 1985 when the legislation passed. I remember that we were gathered at Royals’ Stadium for a monthly meeting when we received the call that the legislation had passed. The citizens east of Blue Ridge should be grateful to Steve and others who fought the good fight.
Unfortunately, last weekend Steve left his earthly home after a gallant fight against cancer. A very good man died too early. Most of us did not even know he was sick, which was Steve’s way – always thinking of others. He was a dear friend to many of us. The citizen on the street never had a better ally.
Steve’s law partner, Betsy Ann Stewart, also became his wife and they were indeed a dynamic duo. Her family became Steve’s family and they were a huge part of his life. Steve was also a very good photographer and proudly displayed some of his work, pictures of places he and Betsy had been outside his chambers in Division 5.
Lake Lotawana and the citizens of Missouri lost a great man this week. Discussions have already begun to start a scholarship at the UMKC Law School in his honor.
In the parable told by Jesus in Matthew 25 of the man who had been given five bags of gold and returned to give his master five more, the Master said: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” That describes the life of Judge W. Steven Nixon.
Bob Buckley is an attorney in Independence. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.