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New Rules Sought for Nevada Judges

One proposal is aimed at distancing jurists from campaign donors; another would change how they are chosen and retain their positions.

September 03, 2006|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — Weary of the perception that their courts are tainted by money, civic leaders in Nevada have launched a reform effort that would diminish the need for judges to moonlight as politicians and would force them to keep their distance from financial contributors.

The overhaul, if successful, would represent another step in the maturation of a famously maverick state, a move some advocates believe would mark a cultural shift akin to the campaign 25 years ago to chase the mob out of the casino business.

"That was a watershed time; you could liken this to that," said Vincent A. Consul, a veteran Las Vegas litigator and criminal defense lawyer who is past president of the State Bar of Nevada. "There is a coalescence here, a combination of growth, of growing up, of outgrowing the state's Wild West days."

The campaign comes on the heels of a Los Angeles Times investigation, published in June, which found that some state judges routinely ruled in favor of friends, former clients and business partners; solicited campaign funds from lawyers with cases pending before them; and awarded millions of dollars in judgments without disclosing personal ties to those who benefited from their rulings.

The Times disclosed, for example, that 17 incumbents in recent elections raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from lawyers, casinos and other corporations with cases pending before them.

Now, a two-pronged reform effort is underway.

The Nevada Supreme Court has been petitioned to adopt a rule prohibiting judges from directly soliciting or accepting campaign contributions, a change that would put the state in line with most of the nation. The court is expected to meet privately in coming weeks to consider the petition.

"Judges and money do not mix," said Washoe County District Judge Brent Adams, who petitioned the state Supreme Court. "The essence of judicial duty is independence. I don't think anyone can argue that it's a good thing for judges to be begging for money -- period."

Additionally, scholars and prominent attorneys are seeking to change the way judges reach the bench in Nevada and retain their positions.

Many Nevada judges face a grueling election every six years, often putting them in the position of sitting in judgment of wealthy and powerful people while trying to raise money in those circles.

Under a proposal dubbed "the Nevada Plan," the governor would fill Supreme Court or District Court vacancies by appointment, choosing among nominees offered by a state judicial commission.

The judges would then serve at least two years before facing an open election. Once a judge wins that election, he or she would face only a "retention vote" -- remaining in office with the approval of a majority of voters, without running against a challenger -- every six years.

The reform effort is not a sure thing.

The proposal to distance judges from campaign contributors is the simpler of the two measures; it requires only a vote of the Supreme Court's seven justices. But some of those justices have long benefited from existing rules; several are renowned among state politicians for their fundraising prowess.

And last month, members of the court may have signaled a hesitancy to adopt the rule change when they suggested it could amount to an unconstitutional limit on free speech.

In a two-page order, the justices noted that federal courts in recent years had struck similar restrictions in other states. The Nevada justices cited a 2002 federal appellate opinion that said: "The fact that judicial candidates require financial support ... to run successful campaigns does not suggest that they will be partial if they are elected."

The Nevada justices asked Judge Adams, the State Bar of Nevada and other organizations to file briefs addressing that issue. Robert E. Rose, the court's chief justice, declined to comment through a spokesman.

Even if the court approves the new rules, some have questioned whether the public's confidence in the judiciary would be enhanced just because a judge's representative solicits on his or her behalf.

"It may not remove all appearance of the judge being connected to the fundraising process, and as long as you're going to allow campaign contributions at all, I don't know that there is a way to do that," said Rew R. Goodenow, president of the state bar. "I think this would be a good first step toward reducing the influence of money in the judicial process. It is not the last, however."

Reflecting the concerns about that proposal's effectiveness, the bar's Board of Governors voted recently to oppose the Adams plan after some members contended it didn't go far enough to distance judges from fundraising and others raised concerns about whether it represented an unconstitutional limit on free speech.

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