After building a legacy helping children and families, Cleveland County Associate District Judge Stephen Bonner is hanging up his cloak and gavel July 1.
Bonner, who had an undergraduate degree and a juris doctorate from the University of Oklahoma and a master's degree in tax law from Southern Methodist University, was the manager of Security National Bank's trust department from 1970 to 1986. He had his own private practice with a focus on trusts and estate planning from 1987 through 2003. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Law from 1974 through 1989.
He was appointed and sworn in as Cleveland County associate district judge of the 21st District Court on Nov. 7, 2003. Bonner said his cases have included the deprived docket involving children in Department of Human Services custody due to neglect or abuse, family law, the probate docket, adoptions and settlement conferences for other judges.
Greg Mitchell, a partner and attorney at Babbit, Mitchell & Ogle law firm, worked with Bonner through undergraduate and law school. Mitchell described Bonner as disciplined and the most ethical lawyer he knows.
"He's definitely an intellectual that loves the law. Very few people continue on and get a master's in law on top of a law degree, which he has," Mitchell said. "He wanted to take the bench because he thought it was his calling to give back to the community and his civic duty. He wants to be in a position where he can promote growth and have the biggest impact."
While Bonner was in private practice, Mitchell said Bonner's colleagues would refer some cases to him and some judges would ask for his advice or opinion occasionally, "because I think even judges he practiced in front of knew that he knew the law backward and forward."
He said Bonner taught him the importance of being disciplined in your craft and placing clients' needs first.
Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman, who worked as a law student in the same building as Bonner's private practice and became a judge in 2013, said Bonner set an example of preparedness. Many times, he walked into Bonner's chambers and saw him reviewing paperwork for his dockets.
Balkman said Bonner also is "legendary for his ability to settle cases."
"He is an excellent mediator, and I have referred dozens of civil cases to him for judicial settlement conference. He has settled nearly every single one of them," he said.
Throughout his time in Norman, Bonner has received several awards and recognitions, including being recognized for serving as Cleveland County Bar Association treasurer for 18 years, being named Judge of the Year in 2011 by Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children and being given the Wayne Martin Memorial Award in 2017 by Mary Abbott Children's House for his outstanding work for children.
behalf of families
Balkman said Bonner's greatest legacy is working for children.
"My passion has always been the kids' cases on the deprived docket," Bonner said, which he noted in the judicial nominating process.
Tomi Walden, Bonner's secretary and bailiff, described Bonner's job as very difficult, particularly the juvenile and deprived dockets.
"He's handled them remarkably well. He's dealt with some very tough situations, and he's made it through," she said.
Bonner said he is passionate about helping children, and breaking up the deprived docket with other cases and adoptions helps.
"If I had to do the deprived docket five days a week, I'd have been in a therapy a long time ago, because it's hard to hear all those cases and not have so much empathy and compassion for the people," he said. "That's why I'm glad I've got such a varied docket and have been honored to have that and try to do that. I was just trying to do something to give back to the community."
From his commitment to helping children, First Choice Recovery for Children and Families was born in February 2009.
Family drug court
Bonner formed the family drug court program with former Assistant District Attorney Meredith Tipton after diong some research. Bonner hired Jami Welbourne, current secretary for Balkman, as coordinator of the developing program at the end of 2008.
Bonner said parents whose children are in the DHS system must voluntarily enter the program and sign a contract agreeing to stay off illicit drugs and alcohol, attend recovering and counseling meetings, check in weekly initially and submit to drug tests. The focus is to get parents clean so they can seek reunification with their children.
Participants earn rewards for doing well in the program but can receive sanctions if they don't, Bonner said.
Bonner said the program has about a 75% reunification average, and the national average is 30%.
"We are very fortunate that Norman and Cleveland County is in kind of an oasis where we've got all kinds of help from Community Mental Health, Center for Children and Families Inc., Mary Abbott Children's House, Virtue Center" and board members from those entities, Bonner said.
One of the highlights of the program, Welbourne said, is when a child is invited to come up to the front with Bonner and bang the gavel when they are reunified with a parent or adopted into a new family.
Bonner said he never takes home anything work-related, including good news from co-workers, such as pregnancies.
"I learned to keep everything away. I have too much that is private," he said.
Welbourne said Bonner has positively impact many people's lives, "and it's been wonderful to watch him with our family drug court families because he knows them ... He stands behind them and supports them in good and in bad because he has seen what they've done, the work that they've put in to put their lives back together, because when we get them, they're broken."
Bonner said the coronavirus pandemic pushed him to retire earlier than expected. It also has changed his retirement plans.
He said he would like to travel right now but can't and wants to stay put until a vaccine for COVID-19 is readily available.
District 1 County Commissioner Rod Cleveland, who has worked with Bonner for 13 years, said Bonner has served the community "with great judicial temperament and a tremendous heart for the community.
"I wish him well in his retirement and know that he will miss serving on the bench as much or more than I will miss him serving on the bench in working with him daily in the juvenile and family courts," Cleveland said.
District 2 County Commissioner Darry Stacy, who was a police officer for 23 years before becoming a commissioner seven years ago, said he has worked with Bonner on the court and law enforcement side.
He described Bonner as fair, just and having a passion for the people he serves.
"He is a very humble individual that truly cares about the work that he does, and he affects the people who come before him," Stacy said. "Obviously, it will be a big loss to the court system as they try to find somebody to replace him with the knowledge and expertise and the years of training and skills that he has, but it's going to be a bigger loss to the community because of his passion for the job that he did."
Balkman said he hopes that, in retirement, Bonner will continue to mediate cases. Balkman will take over family drug court in his stead until July 1.
Bonner said he is working on signing on as an active retired judge and plans on working part-time until his July 1 retirement date.
"He's not built like me. If I was practicing at his age, I would want somebody to tackle me and make me quit," Mitchell said about Bonner and his retirement. "I'm sure he would like to keep on working. It will be a big change, and I hope he's able to adapt and enjoy life a little bit outside of the courthouse."
Bonner, who moved to Norman with his family in 1948, said he has had lots of support including his wife of almost 53 years, children, grandchildren, a brother and friends.
"I'm not trying to pat myself on the back. I think I've just been doing a job that needs to be done and wanted to do it to help the community. I feel blessed to have been appointed and able to do it this many years," Bonner said.
Refilling Bonner's seat
Balkman said Bonner's replacement will be nominated by the judicial nominating commission. Around July or August, an official notice will be posted for the position. Those applying must be licensed attorneys in good standing with the bar association, have at least five years of experience and must live in the county. The JNC interviews the candidates after a screening process and selects the top three. Those names then go to Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, who makes the final hiring decision.
Balkman said the position has a four-year term, and the person appointed will stand for election along with other judges statewide in 2022.
Cleveland said he looks forward to working with the governor's appointee in continuing Bonner's legacy in the county.
"I think the dockets that he presides over, it will be big shoes to fill for whoever takes over that docket. I think he takes a lot of pride in the dockets that he presided over," Mitchell said.
Jamie Berry366-3532Follow me @JamieStitches13jberry@normantranscript.com