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Nevada justices appear to back judicial reforms

The court indicates it's open to proposals to curb alleged corruption.

December 06, 2006|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

CARSON CITY, NEV. — The Nevada Supreme Court on Tuesday indicated that it was prepared to take substantive steps toward reforming the state's judiciary, which has been plagued by allegations of cronyism, blatant conflicts of interest and judges who hand down money awards to friends and business associates.

The justices made no final decisions and reserved the right to refer the measures to study groups or quash them altogether. However, they indicated their general approval of the measures proposed by Chief Justice Robert E. Rose.

However, a key proposal appeared to be foundering. Justices signaled that they considered a proposal to prohibit judges from personally soliciting or accepting campaign contributions a violation of constitutional rights, though they agreed to take the proposal "under advisement" with the others.

"I saw reluctance," said Daniel F. Polsenberg, one of the state's top appellate lawyers, who argued in favor of the proposal. "Some of the justices clearly think this would be unconstitutional."

The reform measures come after a Los Angeles Times investigation revealed problems in the Nevada judiciary, including the perception among attorneys that donating money to certain judges' campaigns could earn them "juice" in the courtroom. Judges have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from attorneys and corporations with cases pending before them.

The measures that appeared to have support among the justices included:

* A proposal to allow parties in some civil court cases to seek the removal of "senior judges."

Nevada's senior judges are typically retired but are called upon to help with a busy court docket. Senior judges were singled out in the Times investigation as particularly problematic because they are not accountable to voters and are exempt from some common rules of judicial practice. One senior judge cited in the investigation presided over at least 16 cases involving participants in his real estate deals.

Under current rules, senior judges cannot be removed from a case even if there are serious concerns about bias. Under Rose's proposal, those judges would be subject to peremptory challenge when assigned to a case with at least two weeks' notice.

* A requirement that judges disclose when a former law clerk appears before them.

"Most judges in Nevada do not think this is a disqualifying factor," Rose said. "However, we have received some criticism in this area."

The Times investigation cited one judge who ruled routinely in favor of an attorney seeking to return driving privileges to people who had been accused of drunk driving -- a rare accommodation. The attorney had been the judge's clerk.

Under the reform measure, disclosure would be required for three years after a clerk's tenure with a judge ended.

* A requirement to disclose when judges have received contributions of more than $10,000 from "the same or similar sources."

Under current Nevada law, judges are allowed to receive individual donations of as much as $10,000. But families, law firms, casinos and other corporations often bundle contributions -- for example, numerous members of a law firm each donate $10,000 to a judge's campaign.

"I think it would be appropriate to disclose," Rose said. "It would clear the air and give some definitive guidance to the District Court judges."

* A cap on the amount of campaign money a judge can keep after an election.

Judges are now allowed to keep as much unused campaign account money as they want after an election, which can be used for judicial purposes or -- more commonly -- to "kick-start their next campaign," Rose said. Many Nevada judges have amassed enormous war chests that make it difficult for challengers to compete with them.

Rose said he would like to cap the amount of money judges can keep after an election at $60,000. Everything else, he said, would have to be returned to donors or donated to a legal charity.

Washoe County District Judge Brent Adams had petitioned the court to ban judges from personally soliciting or accepting campaign contributions. Under the measure, judges would be forced to appoint a committee that would handle their contributions.

The proposal, said Polsenberg, "gets rid of the perception that judges can put people on the spot for money -- and that contributors have to worry about the perception if they say no."

Most states have similar prohibitions, and a host of state courts have upheld those rules. But in recent years, two federal courts ruled that the bans represented an unconstitutional restriction on judges' free speech rights.

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to resolve the matter. The American Bar Assn. is weighing whether to reaffirm its position that it is improper for judges to personally solicit contributions, particularly "dialing for dollars" -- calling potential contributors to ask for money.

The Nevada justices peppered Polsenberg with questions about the propriety of the ban.

If their acceptance of contributions raises so many troubling questions, asked Justice James W. Hardesty, why not prohibit judges from raising campaign money altogether?

That, Polsenberg said, would be like "going after flies with a sledgehammer."

Hardesty argued that not only might it be proper for judges to handle campaign contributions, but that judges were often "in the best position to make the decision whether to accept or reject a campaign contribution."

*

scott.gold@latimes.com

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