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3 Changes in Oversight of Nev. Judges

The state's chief justice announces immediate actions to curb conflicts of interest and other improprieties raised in reports by The Times.

September 20, 2006|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

The chief justice of the Nevada Supreme Court has ordered three steps to heighten scrutiny and supervision of the state's judges, who have become the target of a reform effort amid allegations of impropriety and cronyism in the courtroom and on the campaign trail.

The changes were disclosed in a four-page statement sent to the Los Angeles Times by Chief Justice Robert E. Rose, Nevada's former lieutenant governor and an important figure in the state's political landscape.

They come in the wake of a Times investigation into the state's judiciary, especially the Las Vegas bench. The investigation determined, among other things, that Nevada judges have awarded millions of dollars in judgments in recent years without disclosing that the money was awarded to friends, business partners and former clients -- even people to whom the judges owed money.

The Times' stories had already triggered a broader effort designed to separate Nevada judges from campaign contributors and reduce the frequency of costly elections that judges face under current state law.

Rose's statement outlined three additional steps toward reform that will be set in motion immediately.

First, the Supreme Court will implement a formal process to evaluate the performance of the state's senior judges -- on-call jurists who are paid by the hour, have typically retired from the bench and are farmed out to assist with a growing workload in the court system.

Although many had distinguished careers before their retirement, they are seen as vulnerable to allegations of impropriety because they are not accountable to voters and serve at the pleasure of the Supreme Court indefinitely.

The Times investigation found, for instance, that one senior judge ruled repeatedly in favor of a casino corporation in which he held more than 10,000 shares, and that another had presided over at least 16 cases involving participants in his real estate deals.

One senior judge scrutinized in the Times' stories, Joseph S. Pavlikowski, has resigned from the position in the wake of the reports, Rose said.

The chief justice said Nevada would benefit from a "more comprehensive and uniform procedure to evaluate the performance of our senior judges."

Starting in November, evaluation forms will be sent to lawyers, jurors and parties in cases that are heard by senior judges, and the district courts that request the judges' services.

Second, Rose said, senior judges will be subjected in some cases to peremptory challenge -- the right of a party in a court case to seek a judge's removal. Currently, senior judges are immune from such challenges, unlike regular judges.

In the past, Rose said, senior judges were not exposed to challenges because they were often pressed into service at the last moment; they are often called to preside over a case when another judge is sick or otherwise absent.

Now, peremptory challenges will be allowed when a senior judge is appointed more than 14 days prior to a scheduled court date, Rose said.

Third, Rose said, the Supreme Court will issue a communique to all of the state's district court judges reminding them of their ethical obligation to disclose potential conflicts of interest.

The Times investigation detailed a host of instances in which judges presided over cases in which their impartiality could have been called into question.

"Detailed facts were not provided to support many of the accusations," Rose wrote. "But, suffice it to say, there were instances where the disclosure of an interest or facts that may bear upon the case should have been made by the judge."

According to federal and state judicial canons, judges should withdraw from cases when their impartiality might reasonably be questioned. But the state does not require judges to disclose when their campaign contributors appear before them. And court observers say some judges have been reticent in volunteering information that might call their impartiality into question.

Rose said he would remind judges that they should "err on the side of disclosure."

"We believe that judges often equate a disqualifying interest with an interest they are required to disclose," Rose wrote. "Such is not the case. A judge must disqualify himself or herself from any case where his or her impartiality might reasonably be questioned."

Rose sent his statement to The Times on Monday night. He did not return phone calls on Tuesday seeking additional comment.

The state's top judge said he found insufficient grounds to act against three senior judges whose conduct was called into question by The Times investigation, citing inadequate information or lack of jurisdiction.

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