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Nevada high court to debate judicial ethics

Proposed rules include banning jurists from personally soliciting campaign funds. Free speech may be an issue.

December 05, 2006|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

CARSON CITY, NEV. — The Nevada Supreme Court this morning will begin weighing the constitutionality of a proposal to ban judges from personally soliciting or accepting campaign contributions, an important issue in the struggle to clean up and modernize the state's troubled judiciary.

The measure, part of a wide-ranging reform effort, would put Nevada in line with most other states' codes of conduct that guide the behavior of judges.

First, however, the court's justices want to ensure that the ban would not represent an unconstitutional limit on judges' free speech.

Since states have added such provisions to their judicial codes of conduct, that issue has divided courts across the country; the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to resolve the matter.

Nevada Supreme Court justices have suggested that they sympathize with a federal appellate ruling in 2002 holding that allowing judges to raise campaign funds "does not suggest that they will be partial if they are elected."

But Washoe County, Nev., District Judge Brent Adams -- who petitioned the court earlier this year to approve the measure -- has argued in court documents that the appellate ruling and others like it are "seriously flawed," largely because they fail to address "the appearance that justice was for sale."

Adams has become a leading voice for Nevada judicial reform, but he will not be able to attend today's hearing to argue for the measure because he is presiding over a complex civil trial.

Adams said he was given no advance notice of the hearing date. When he learned of the date, he said, he immediately contacted Supreme Court justices to ask them to postpone the hearing, but received no response.

"I don't understand it, to tell you the truth," Adams said. "I'd like to be present. If they want to go ahead without me, that's their prerogative."

Adams said the hearing schedule was particularly confounding because Chief Justice Robert E. Rose recently created a "blue ribbon commission" -- dubbed the Article 6 Commission, after the section of the state Constitution establishing the courts -- to "study all aspects" of the judiciary.

The commission includes judges, court administrators, attorneys, legislators and "lay members," including business leaders. It will hold its first meeting this month and would seem, Adams said, a good venue to debate the merits of his proposal.

In a statement to The Times, Supreme Court spokesman Bill Gang noted that Adams' proposal is one of a host of reform provisions that will be discussed today. Rose, who proposed many of the other provisions himself, wants to preside over the hearing before he retires at the end of the year, Gang said.

Rose also noted that the court's debate of Adams' petition is limited to the narrow question of its constitutionality. The court would only debate whether to adopt the measure if it first determines that it passes constitutional muster.

"If the proposed changes cannot first meet constitutionality requirements, addressing the changes themselves would be fruitless, not only for the court, but also for Judge Adams and the Article 6 Commission members," Rose said.

According to court documents, the Supreme Court will also address these reform proposals today:

* Allowing peremptory challenges -- the right of each party in a court case to seek a judge's removal -- of the state's "senior judges" in some cases. Senior judges, who are often retired, are hired on an on-call basis and are frequently farmed out across the state to assist with a growing workload. They are not accountable to voters and serve at the pleasure of the Supreme Court.

* Requiring judges to disclose, in many cases, when former law clerks appear before them in court. "Nevada law indicates that few relationships require a judge to disqualify him or herself," Rose noted in a recent court document. But articles in The Times, he wrote, "roundly criticized Nevada judges for not disclosing that an attorney appearing before a judge was a former law clerk to the judge. This does appear to be a relationship that opposing counsel might reasonably consider relevant."

* Requiring judges to disclose certain campaign contributions and limiting the amount of unspent campaign contributions that judicial candidates can keep.

The proposals represent the first wave of reform efforts prompted largely by The Times' investigation.

The investigation found, among other things, that Nevada judges have often failed to disclose conflicts of interest, have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from attorneys and corporations with cases pending before them and have awarded millions of dollars worth of judgments without disclosing that the money went to friends, business partners and former clients.

A comprehensive reform proposal that would change the way judges reach the bench in Nevada and retain their positions also has been floated in the wake of the investigation.

But that proposal would require a more laborious approval process than the provisions currently before the Supreme Court because it would require a change to the state Constitution. The soonest that plan could land on a ballot for voter approval is 2010.

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scott.gold@latimes.com

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