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In Las Vegas, They're Playing With a Stacked Judicial Deck

JUICE VS. JUSTICE | A Times Investigation

Some judges routinely rule in cases involving friends, former clients and business associates -- and in favor of lawyers who fill their campaign coffers.

June 08, 2006|Michael J. Goodman and William C. Rempel | Times Staff Writers

LAS VEGAS -- When Judge Gene T. Porter last ran for reelection, a group of Las Vegas lawyers sponsored a fundraiser for him at Big Bear in California. Even by Las Vegas standards, it was brazen. Some of the sponsors had cases before him. One case was set for a crucial hearing in four days.

"A Lavish Buffet Dinner will be catered By Big Bear's Premier Restaurant," invitations to Porter's fundraiser said. "There will be Food, Fun, Libations ... a 7:30 p.m. Sunset Cruise on the Big Bear Queen ... a Zoo Tour for the Little Ones." Porter, 49, a Nevada state judge, attended. The evening blossomed into a festival of champagne, lobster and money. Organizers said guests contributed nearly $30,000, dropping much of it into a crystal punch bowl.

Some lawyers considered it protection against ill fortune. Robert D. Vannah, a sponsor of the fundraiser whose firm had the hearing scheduled in Porter's courtroom in four days, would later explain his donation this way: "Giving money to a judge's campaign means you're less likely to get screwed.... A $1,000 contribution isn't going to buy special treatment. It's just a hedge against bad things happening."

Vannah and others in his law firm, along with one of their consultants, made donations worth a total of $13,500, fundraising reports show. It was the fattest combined contribution of the night.

On the other side of the case, counsel for Michael D. Farney, then a resident of Ojai, Calif., whose company was being sued, hadn't chipped in a dime. Worried that bad things might happen to him, the lawyer, Douglas Gardner of Las Vegas, asked Porter to withdraw from the case. "The timing of the campaign gala," Gardner's motion said, "is too close."

Porter refused, protesting he had "no bias or prejudice."

At the hearing four days after the fundraiser, Gardner requested a delay.

Porter refused that too.

The case went to trial, and Porter ordered Farney's company to pay $1.5 million in damages.

The California businessman said his attorneys were appalled. " 'Hometown justice,' " Farney said they called it. "I don't plan to go back for more."

Porter's refusal to withdraw is hardly unusual in Las Vegas courts. This is a juice town, some Las Vegas attorneys openly concede. Financial contributions "get you juice with a judge -- an 'in,' " Ian Christopherson, a lawyer in Las Vegas for 18 years, said in an interview. "If you have juice, you get different treatment. This is not a quid pro quo town like, say, Chicago. This town is a juice town."

Las Vegas is one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the United States. Since 1960, census figures show, its population has exploded by 1,246%. But many of its courts have not grown with it, much less grown up. At the heart of the Las Vegas court system are 21 state judges who hear civil and criminal cases, and who can be assigned anywhere in Nevada, but who are called district judges because they work out of courthouses in the judicial districts where they are elected. These state judges often dispense a style of wide-open, frontier justice that veers out of control across ethical, if not legal, boundaries. The consequences reach beyond Nevada, affecting people in other states, especially California.

Some of the effect falls upon visitors from Los Angeles who come here to gamble, flirt with sin and have a good time. More than a quarter -- about 29% -- of the 38.5 million visits to Las Vegas in 2005 were made by Southern Californians, including many who came here more than once. By that estimate, published by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, Southern Californians make more than 11 million visits to Las Vegas every year.

But the effect falls, as well, upon Californians in business. Like Michael Farney of Ojai, who owned Elite Marine, a boat company that served southern Nevada and Lake Mead, an uncounted number of people from Southern California hold financial interests in Las Vegas and its surrounding metropolitan area. Of all businesses that relocate to Nevada, according to the state Commission on Economic Development, at least 36% come from California.

Whether they want to play or do business, all who come to Las Vegas, from Southern California or elsewhere across the nation, expect a fair shake, especially from its courts. Las Vegas is a town, however, where some judges, operating in a new $185-million Clark County courthouse two blocks from casinos, wedding chapels and strip clubs, routinely rule in cases involving friends, former clients and business associates, even in cases touching people to whom they owe money.

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