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JUICE VS. JUSTICE | A Times Investigation

Special Treatment Keeps Them Under the Radar

Senior judges in Nevada are exempt from some rules of accountability. The careers of three jurists reflect the ethical questions that can result.

June 10, 2006|Michael J. Goodman and William C. Rempel | Times Staff Writers

LAS VEGAS — One Nevada judge was nearly indicted on blackmail charges. Another ruled repeatedly for a casino corporation in which he held more than 10,000 shares. Still another overruled state authorities and decided in favor of a gambling boss who was notorious as a mob frontman, and whose casino did the judge a $2,800 favor.

Yet the Nevada Supreme Court has conferred upon these judges a special distinction that exempts them from some of the common rules of judicial practice and reduces their accountability. They are among 17 state judges whom the high court has commissioned as senior judges.

Unlike regular judges, senior judges are not answerable to the voters, but serve at the pleasure of the high court, and that can mean for life. Unlike regular judges, they can reject assignments until they are given a case they want to try. Unlike regular judges, they cannot be removed from a case by peremptory challenge. And until last year, they did not have to disclose their financial interests.

With this exceptional flexibility, they could try lawsuits in which they had a personal stake without revealing it. And because they cannot be removed by peremptory challenge, which normally permits a one-time replacement of a judge at the beginning of any case simply for the asking, it is possible for litigants to be stuck with senior judges, their conflicts of interest and their decisions.

The judge who was nearly indicted is James A. Brennan. He resigned as a state judge to avoid being charged by a federal grand jury with blackmail. After the state Supreme Court returned Brennan to the bench and then named him a senior judge, he presided over at least 16 cases involving participants in his real estate deals. A recent search found no statement in court records that Brennan publicly disclosed those relationships.

The judge who ruled for a casino corporation in which he held stock is Stephen L. Huffaker. He owned 12,000 shares of the corporation while the case was before him. In addition, he presided over cases involving another casino corporation whose foundation gave his son a partial scholarship to Yale University. A recent search found no statement in court records that Huffaker publicly disclosed the scholarship at the time.

The judge who ruled in favor of the gambling boss is Joseph S. Pavlikowski. In 1969, he officiated at the wedding of Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, known as a frontman for the Chicago mob. Pavlikowski then accepted a discounted wedding reception for his daughter at a casino where Rosenthal was a top executive. He subsequently ruled for Rosenthal in three cases when authorities tried to take action against him.

Senior judges, including Brennan, Huffaker and Pavlikowski, are on call statewide to fill in temporarily at any level of the state courts in which they have previous experience. Sometimes they are brought in when local judges disqualify themselves from sensitive and thorny cases.

The Supreme Court, the highest-ranking court in the state, created senior judges in 1977 to ease a workload that has since grown to an average of 2,700 cases for each regular judge in Las Vegas per year.

The high court acted independently of the Legislature. It wrote its own rules for the senior judges, said Ronald R. Titus, the state court administrator. "Nothing in the statutes," Titus said, "talks about senior judges."

The Legislature, however, controls their budget. At one time it was limited to $340,000 annually, and at one point senior judges numbered as few as half a dozen. But since then, more senior judges have been added. The Legislature budgeted $1.5 million last year. Their number may continue to grow along with southern Nevada.

In response to written questions, Robert E. Rose, chief justice of the Supreme Court, said senior judges were accountable because their decisions might be appealed to the Supreme Court. It is, however, the same court that appointed them.

"We must rely on the senior judge to recuse himself or herself in conflict-of-interest situations," Rose said, "or at least bring [the conflict] to the attention of the parties [involved in the case]. And any party can file a motion to disqualify a judge for cause."

Unlike a peremptory challenge, however, removal for cause is not automatic and must be decided by another judge.

Rose also said court administrators monitored the performance of senior judges.

"Many senior judges have had long and distinguished careers," Rose said. "History has shown that judges have the ability to rule fairly and impartially on cases, based on the facts and the law.... To date, no application to become a senior judge or justice has been denied....

"Senior judges are a tremendous asset to the judiciary and the citizens," Rose said. "They are often among the most experienced judges around. They serve only when needed, thus providing a great resource at a bargain price. Without senior judges, it would be necessary to add full-time judges at a cost of millions of dollars.

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