Nevada's 5th District Judge Kim Wanker takes a monthly circuit trip… (John M. Glionna, Los Angeles…)
GOLDFIELD, NEV. — Judge Kim Wanker is behind the wheel, again. The highway is a straight line into the desert's nothingness, where crows begrudgingly relinquish their spots on the hot asphalt. She motors past wild horses, diners with portraits of John Wayne, and anonymous dirt roads leading off into the scrub brush.
Soon after starting her job in 2011, Wanker got stopped by a deputy asking why she was in such a hurry.
"I'm the new 5th District judge," answered Wanker (pronounced wonker).
"Can you prove it?"
She couldn't. She hadn't had time to make business cards yet.
"Well," she offered, "I've got my black robe in the trunk."
The deputy let her off with a warning, a bit of discretion Wanker sometimes dispenses from the bench herself as one of the nation's legal oddities -- a circuit court judge who still rides a circuit.
Once a month, the petite Nebraska native embarks on a journey that evokes another era. In the old days, hanging judges, as some were known, headed into town by horse, stagecoach or locomotive. Today, Wanker, 51, whizzes along paved two-lane roads in her government-issued white Pontiac Sebring. Hanging isn't her style, but she has already become known as "The Hammer" for her no-nonsense courtroom demeanor.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, January 11, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 Local Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Circuit judge: An article in the Jan. 1 Section A about Kim Wanker, a circuit judge in Nevada, said that she travels her vast territory in a Pontiac Sebring. The Sebring is made by Chrysler.
Wanker is one of a dwindling number of judges who still wander the West's wide-open spaces. Montana is so big, for example, that most of the state's 56 counties are served by traveling judges. In other places, the practice could be in jeopardy. In Wyoming, budget cuts have curtailed judicial circuits to satellite courts, meaning prisoners will now be brought to their day in court, and not the other way around.
But Nevada, for now, continues the practice. "Nevada's center has always been pretty sparsely populated," said Dennis McBride, director of the Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas. "In the old days, they needed a judge to ride the circuit. And today they still do."
Sprawling just over 25,000 square miles, Nevada's 5th District -- encompassing Nye, Mineral and Esmeralda counties -- is bigger than West Virginia. The expanse remains largely vacant, with most of the 50,000 population living in one town. That means the rest of Wanker's turf averages 31/2 people per square mile, a population scarcity that rivals Siberia's.
Wanker's circuit often takes three days or more, covering more than 600 miles. She stops in courthouses in tiny Goldfield, Tonopah and Hawthorne, where she hears between 60 and 80 cases per trip. Along the way, the landscape features road signs advertising the dreamlike El Sueno casino, rundown brothels like the Shady Lady and wooden shacks with placards featuring curious spelling flourishes, one selling "an-teeks." She stops for candy on each trip, with the clerk (missing two front teeth) greeting her the same way: "Good morning, Your Eminence."
In Goldfield, Wanker oversees proceedings in a vintage 1907 courtroom that features the original steel judge's bench, faux Tiffany lamps and observer chairs complete with metal Stetson holders. A mounted bighorn sheep head looms over her head, confiscated from some luckless defendant decades ago. The place conjures Western court scenes from the imagination, like in the old TV show "Gunsmoke" or the 1972 John Huston film "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean."
Western-style lawbreaking has changed over the generations. Vagrants and cattle rustlers have been replaced by drug dealers, alcohol abusers, deadbeat parents, spouse beaters and, occasionally, child molesters. But Wanker, who grew up anchored by farm roots and a strong family ethic, still holds defendants to a simple, old-school standard: Stand up and be accountable for your own failures.
The judge, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval in 2011 to fill a vacancy and held on to her seat in November's election, brings her own stamp of courtroom common sense. People once talked on their cellphones during sessions and let their children run around unsupervised. Defendants were used to getting second chances.
Not anymore. Wanker has even publicly dressed down attorneys for frequent tardiness. If she can get to a distant court on time, well, so can they.
"I see accountability, a respect for the bench, that wasn't here before," said Suzy Rowe, who's seen a lot of judges in her 30 years as a court stenographer. "Nobody shows up in Judge Wanker's court in shorts and a ripped shirt."
Single, with no children, Wanker spent most of her career as an attorney working in employment law, with several major casinos as clients. Over the years, she continued to cultivate her tomboy side, collecting cars and riding motorcycles, mountain bikes and jet skis -- anything that provides speed. She jumped at the chance to become a judge, mainly because of the monthly chance to revel in the freedom of the road.