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Ex-Judge John McGroarty, remembered for kindness, dies at 80

Updated October 28, 2021 - 12:49 pm

Former Judge John McGroarty, who served in Clark County District Court for more than two decades, died on Monday at the age of 80.

Chief District Judge Linda Bell announced McGroarty’s death in a statement sent to court employees on Tuesday afternoon.

McGroarty’s wife, Nancy, said her husband died at their Las Vegas home from complications of a stroke.

“He was very compassionate, and very loving, and very dignified,” she said. “He was an old-fashioned gentleman.”

McGroarty served as a district judge from 1982 until his retirement in 2006, Bell said. Following his retirement, he continued to preside over District Court’s mental health court specialty program until about 2012.

“He was such a nice man,” Bell said in a phone interview Wednesday. “He never said anything bad about anybody. He always was just so kind and compassionate.”

In a 2005 interview before his retirement, the then-64-year-old said he built his career on the values his parents instilled in him while he was growing up in 1950s Las Vegas.

“Leave the world a better place,” McGroarty told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “Do the right thing, because if you do the right thing, you never have to look back. And don’t fear failure. Just fear not trying hard enough.”

After McGroarty and his family moved to Las Vegas in his childhood, he would wake up early to watch the flashes and lights from nuclear testing in the nearby desert. He was part of the first freshman class at Bishop Gorman High School, where he made the football, basketball and baseball teams.

Background in politics

The week of his high school graduation, McGroarty’s car spun out of control and crashed, leaving him with a severe brain injury.

“I didn’t know who I was for three months,” McGroarty said in 2005. “I couldn’t remember anything. I was a total mess.”

After a year spent recovering, McGroarty made it to the University of Notre Dame. Instead of pursuing his childhood dream of becoming a nuclear physicist, McGroarty majored in communications with a focus on journalism.

He then attended law school in Washington, D.C., while working the graveyard shift as a Capitol policeman.

McGroarty was entrenched in Nevada politics since the 1960s, when he began working in the office of then-U.S. Sen. Howard Cannon, D-Nev.

He then worked for the Democratic National Committee and Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 presidential campaign.

When Humphrey failed to beat Richard Nixon, McGroarty returned to Nevada and practiced law with Oscar Goodman, who went on to become mayor of Las Vegas, and Richard Bryan, who served as Nevada’s governor and as a U.S. senator.

After Mike O’Callaghan became governor in 1971, McGroarty joined his office and became the governor’s administrative assistant and adviser.

‘Dedicated public servant’

McGroarty was appointed a justice of the peace in 1978 and won an election for the position the same year. Four years later, he began his career as a district judge.

In the mid 2000s, McGroarty helped create the District Court’s mental health court program. Hundreds of people have since graduated from the treatment program, which serves as an alternative to prison sentences for people with severe mental illnesses.

District Court Executive Officer Steven Grierson, who was the first mental health court coordinator, said McGroarty testified to legislators and wrote letters advocating for the court’s creation. By the program’s second year, they had shown lawmakers that the specialty court was worth the investment, Grierson said.

McGroarty’s reputation for being kind and patient continued as he oversaw the specialty court, Grierson said.

“It was his main mission to do whatever it took to help these folks,” Grierson said. “He always went the extra mile.”

As a district judge, McGroarty also supervised juvenile court and was a driving force behind creating what is now Family Court.

Bill Gang, who covered District Court for the Las Vegas Sun before becoming a Nevada Supreme Court spokesman, first met McGroarty in the 1970s. He said the judge was passionate about juvenile court.Off and on the bench, McGroarty was a “joy to be around.”

“He was a dedicated public servant and took that very seriously,” Gang said.

In 1989, the Review-Journal reported that McGroarty had repeatedly volunteered to serve as a juvenile court judge, even though other district judges preferred to stay away from the depressing cases that made up the department. McGroarty instead became an advocate for increasing resources and services for Southern Nevada’s children.

“I don’t let things get me down,” McGroarty said in 1989. “I’ve always been kind of an upbeat person.”

Nancy McGroarty said this year would have marked the couple’s 45th wedding anniversary. The two met on a dance floor in Wyoming and were married three months later at John McGroarty’s parents’ home.

The couple adopted two children, and Nancy McGroarty said her husband often would turn down prestigious job opportunities in order to be home with his family.

“Everything has been about family for us,” she said.

In addition to his wife, John McGroarty is survived by his son, John; his daughter, Meghan; and four grandchildren.

A public funeral mass will be held at 10:30 a.m. on Nov. 8 at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church, 1811 Pueblo Vista Drive.

Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240. Follow @k_newberg on Twitter.

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