Las Vegas has always been the melting pot of America. Everyone is from someplace else and perhaps no one made more of the opportunities in Southern Nevada than Joe W. Brown of Jolley Urga Woodbury & Holthus. Brown came up at a time of extraordinary opportunity in Southern Nevada. The ultimate people person gives this bit of advice to aspiring young attorneys: “This is such a unique state where the common man, the average guy, has access; that common guy can get a break here as much as any place in the world. Knowing how to play tennis didn’t hurt.”
Vegas Legal: Where did you go to law school?
Joe W. Brown: I went to law school at Washington and Lee in Lexington, Virginia, in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. I went to the University of Virginia undergraduate.
VL: How did you end up in Las Vegas?
JWB: A judge here named Al Wartman went to law school back there and he recruited me. He knew the dean’s secretary, and he called her and said, who in the graduating class is adventurous enough that I might be able to talk him into coming out here?
VL: How many people were in Las Vegas when you arrived?
JWB: About 160,000 in the county. That was in 1968.
VL: So you get to Las Vegas. It’s the high frontier. Decatur is the end of civilization.
JWB: Yes, it was dirt roads beyond that.
VL: It was “Here Be Dragons” after that. What kind of law did you practice?
JWB: Well, I was lucky. During my first year here as a law clerk, I met so many people who were warm and friendly, and had us to their homes for dinner. My wife and I were invited to dinner with the likes of Herb Jones, George Dickerson, Chuck Deaner, Harry Claiborne, Louis Wiener. They were all icons in those days. I met the governor, Paul Laxalt, shortly after arriving in the state, and within six weeks I was playing tennis with him!
He said, let’s play tennis. And next time I saw him, and that was six weeks later, I was playing tennis with the governor. Within two months of arriving in the state, I was playing tennis with the governor.
And I met Al Benedict, Kirk Kerkorian, Bob Maheu and all those people who could not have been nicer to two kids from Virginia, you know, in their 20s that had no relatives, no money, nothing. I was making $600 a month and my wife made $640 as a teacher.
VL: What time of year did you get here?
JWB: July 7th. It was 115 degrees the day we crossed the dam.
We lived in Boulder City. The judge lived in Boulder City and we lived in his garage for the months of July and August, and then moved into town when school started because Pam was teaching at Brinley Junior High. It was a brand new school and she taught eighth grade there.
VL: They say the smart man knows everything; the wise man knows everyone. You knew everyone. How did that arc, that beginning, play into the rest of your career?
JWB: Oh, just because everyone was so friendly to us, and I’m a glad-hander anyway, you know, I really like people. So if I met someone, I remembered them and vice versa. And then Paul Laxalt took me under his wing and I went to work for the Laxalt law firm that had just opened up a Las Vegas office. And they invited me, and do you remember Eddie LeBaron, the former All-American, All-Pro quarterback for the Redskins and Cowboys? I worked with Eddie, who had been my hero when I was about 12 years old. The firm belonged to the Las Vegas Country Club, which was where was all the VIPs in town were members. I met them all and played tennis with them.
I played tennis with Kirk Kerkorian. He just happened to be at the court and was looking for a game and I played with him. So he and I became friends. Bob Maheu treated us like we were important. It was one person after another.
VL: How did you get the street in Las Vegas, Joe W. Brown Drive, named after you?
JWB: Well that’s not me. That’s a common misconception. It’s named after another Joe W. Brown, who was good friends with Benny Binion. This Joe Brown was a Texas oil man. He took over the Horseshoe for several years in the 1950s when Benny Binion went to prison for tax evasion. My dad and brother drove through Las Vegas in the summer of 1958, and they sent me a postcard from what was then Joe W. Brown’s Horseshoe Club.
My first couple of weeks here, Judge John Mowbray, who was then on the state Supreme Court, knew I was Catholic. He said, I understand you’re from Virginia and you’re a fine Catholic boy. Now, I want you to join the Knights of Columbus. I didn’t know what the Knights of Columbus was at the time. But he said the bailiff here, Charlie Horden, he belongs to the Knights. He said, I understand your ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War and I want to join the Sons of the American Revolution. I had never heard of that either.
So I went to the Knights of Columbus meeting about the second week I was in town. And the bailiff introduced me to federal Judge Roger Foley. That was a huge deal for me as a lawyer. I said, your honor, how are you? And he said, Joe W. Brown. Are you related to the Joe W. Brown? I said, no, sir. It’s just a coincidence, not related at all. And then another guy came up and the judge says, have you met Joe W. Jr. here? When the guy walked away, I said, your honor, you misunderstood me. I’m not related. He said, yeah, but it makes a great story. And he always, for as long as he lived, he always told people that I was Joe W. Jr. And then Jay Sarno started doing the same thing.
Now since I’ve been here so long, people think it’s me.
VL: Maybe they should officially rename the street for you, the new Joe W. Brown.
JWB: Ralph Lamb is another one who was wonderful when we arrived. Because I went to work with Tom Bell and Tom’s brother Lloyd was the undersheriff. So I met Ralph early on and I went in front of him a few times. If you remember back then the sheriff chaired the Liquor and Gaming Commission. That was the real power. I went in as a member of the Laxalt law firm representing Howard Hughes on putting in slot machines at the Hughes Terminal.
Ralph was just teasing with me, but I did not know that, and he said, Joe, are you really Howard Hughes in disguise?
I got all flustered. What do you mean? And then he said, I’m just kidding with you. And then they approved it. Then the meeting was over. I was the last one who was in it, and he came over to me and said, I didn’t mean to embarrass you, son. I like you, kid. You ain’t full of BS like most lawyers.
He sent me some very good business. Even in his last days, when he’d see me he’d say, there’s my lawyer, Joe Brown.
VL: So out of this constellation of memorable names in Las Vegas, who was it who helped you the most?
JWB: Clearly Paul Laxalt. He got me the appointment in the Reagan administration in 1981 to the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission (FCSC) of the United States for two terms, and encouraged me to run for lieutenant governor in 1986. Those kind of things really kind of raised me up a few notches.
Eddie LeBaron was another one. Just loved being around him, and he was such a modest, neat guy.
Tom Wiesner was a great friend of mine, a close friend.
Undoubtedly right up there with Laxalt was Herb Jones. Herb was a lawyer’s lawyer. He was a consummate gentleman. Totally honest, forthright in every way. He was such a great mentor to me throughout my career.
VL: Laxalt did a lot for a lot of people, didn’t he?
JWB: He did. He made lots of Las Vegans, he put them in positions in Washington, helped their careers.
VL: What would you tell a young man or woman coming out of law school to Las
JWB: Despite the fact that it’s grown so damn much, it’s still just a down home friendly town, you know, even though it’s not quite like it was before. But it’s not hard to get known in this town. You know, if you want to join this club or that charity or whatever and get on the board, which is what I was asked to do, you can do it.
I went on the Catholic Community Services Board and through that I got to know Mary Cashman and Gov. Mike O’Callaghan and a lot of people like that. There was also the Boys and Girls clubs. I met a lot of the guys who were my contemporaries, the other younger guys in town who were the up-and-coming movers and shakers. Then people like Sig Rogich and Lyle Rivera introduced me into that circle of friends.
The judge I worked for at the time was the juvenile judge, too. There was a U.S. Supreme Court case that came down right about when I was getting out of law school called “In re Gault.” It applied all the Miranda warnings to juveniles. So if you were a juvenile and you got arrested, the police also had to read you Miranda warnings and you had a right to have counsel appointed. So the judge handed the decision to me my first day on the job and said, Read this. I think it means I have to appoint a magistrate in juvenile court. I read it and I came back the next day and I said, yeah, that’s right. He said, All right, I’m appointing you as a magistrate. So I had to arraign all the kids coming in, so there were guys like Joe Foley and Al Gunderson who would represent kids from wealthy families. Brian Buckley, that’s how I met him, he came down there on a traffic ticket. Bob Maheu’s daughter, Christine, and Joe Foley’s kids. I met a lot of those people that way.
So I was a judge within my first month of being here! I also got to be friends with all of the juvie probation officers, and they were all Harry Reid’s best friends from Basic High School. Guys like Jerry Tarr, Larry Dehlin, Ray Slaughter, Donnie Wilson, and a lot of guys that you probably know over the years. Harry was running for Assembly for the first time in 1968.
VL: Having seen this great horizon of time in Las Vegas, there was a time when it felt like we were just a punching bag with the MGM fire, the Hilton fire, Pepcon, it just kept coming. Now we have COVID-19, a threat unlike anything we’ve seen before. What advice would you give?
JWB: Just keep the faith. This is such a unique state where the common man, the average guy, has access, that common guy can get a break here as much as any place in the world. People are generally treated very fair here. The biggest thing that I noticed here versus being in the East where I grew up is if you went for a job interview in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia or wherever, people would say, well, what are your credentials? What law school did you go to? What was your class standing? Who is your father? Who was your grandfather? Here, nobody asked me a damn thing like that. I was just so blown away. They said, can you do the job? That’s all they care about.
I think if you go around town and look at other very successful people in this town, like a Kenny Guinn, for instance, his parents were sharecroppers and they were just very, very poor people. They came here to this town and the sky’s the limit.
I’d put him at the top. He put me on the boxing commission, I loved that.
VL: How cool is that?
JWB: I’m the only one in Nevada history who has been appointed to all three of the top most sought-after commissions: Fish and Game (Wildlife Commission); Athletic Commission; and Gaming Commission. Gaming was 2009-2015. Gov. Gibbons appointed me and Brian Sandoval reappointed me.
VL: Kenny Guinn was a great governor. He managed to be bipartisan at a time when it was hard to do.
JWB: Kenny was bipartisan and one of the finest people I’ve ever known in my life. Mike O’Callaghan was very partisan, but a man’s man, and his word was his bond. He was somebody you had to respect. He liked that I had been in the Marine Corps. And he was a tough son of a gun.