A Scandal in the Nevada Courts

The Los Angeles Times today in the first of a three-part series has a fascinating and important story about "justice" in Las Vegas where, the Times' reports, judges "routinely rule in cases involving friends, former clients and business associates-- and in favor of lawyers who fill their campaign coffers." The piece (and the two others to follow Friday and Saturday) are a must-read for judges, lawyers, clients and legislators everywhere. From the reporting of Michael J. Goodman and William Rempel we get this: "This is a juice town, some Las Vegaas attorneys openly concede. Financial contributions 'get you juice with a judge-- an 'in' "

And there is this: "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."

As faithful readers of Bench Conference know, no one is a bigger supporter of the judiciary than me. But there is no defense to the examples cited by the Times. The stories cited by the paper are so atrocious-- judges borrowing money from attorneys who worked in cases before them, judges who awarded damages and fees to former business associates without disclosing the link, judges who accepted expensive gifts from lawyers during the pendency of the litigation, judges who gave unspent campaign funds to their girlfriends-- that they ought to lead to a massive investigation by state and federal prosecutors.

Judges across the country have enough trouble these days from politicians who seek to limit their independence, power and authority. They don't need to enhance those problems by creating the appearance of gross impropriety, if not outright illegality, that pepper the Times' piece. If the judicial system is as broken in Nevada as the paper suggests, it must be fixed and fixed quickly.

By  |  June 8, 2006; 2:00 PM ET
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Typos: "routinely fule" in paragraph 1, "a bigger support" in paragraph 3.

Guess the law works differently in Nevada. I've never understood why people thought electing judges was a good idea. Maybe there's some reason that made sense in the past, but they're supposed to be impartial and apolitical. How can they do that when they have to run for office? What's worse, how can attorneys who appear before them in their courts expect a fair hearing if they campaigned against them?

I can't offer a better solution, but there has to be a better way.

Posted by: Cujo359 | June 8, 2006 02:25 PM

Thanks, Cujo359. For pointing out the typos. I'll work on that. People think they should elect judges because judges will become more accountable to the people. But what ends up happening, as the Times' story suggests, is that judges become more accountable only to certain people, a concept that is anathema to a fair and impartial system of justice.

Posted by: Andrew Cohen | June 8, 2006 03:20 PM

What are the chances that the Nevada judicial system will be cleaned up? Since politics and the Law often go hand in hand, and folks know ethics are not even worth the paper it's printed on in reality.

I'm skeptical and pessimistic, since after seeing how real city government works (and knowing of a ex-congressman sitting in federal pen for milking Medicaid dollars), that any penalty is but a slap on the wrist and they'll just return to politics (Washington's Marion Barry comes to mind) if they can't practice law again.

Ethics should be more than an oath and a piece of paper, it should be religiously enforced as a pennance for practicing a profession.


Posted by: SandyK | June 8, 2006 04:44 PM

It may be telling that this was a Los Angeles paper that broke the story. Why not one of the Nevada papers? Seems possible they didn't want to risk having a case come before one of these ethics-challenged judges or their buddies.

Posted by: Cujo359 | June 8, 2006 05:05 PM

If it broke out in Nevada, some powerful folks would get unseated, and ethics violations will reveal the true extent of the Law in Nevada. Can't have the messy dirt in public, so the Law profession will close ranks and try to hush this matter up (ACLU isn't ranting about it; neither does it sound like the national bar groups). Much like Utah's court officers not enforcing the laws on polygamy for decades -- can't afford getting voters and the profession upset.

Politics and the Law is a dirty business. It's about movers and shakers getting their hands on the till, and tweaking laws for their agendas. The till makes loyal followers (and blackmails them into silence), the tweaking ensures they stay in power. Since there's few folks willing to risk everything to be ethical, the practice will go on for years as long as the public (or a brave whistleblower comes up PUBLICLY) doesn't get angered over it. If the story is published in the LA or NY Times it doesn't reach the general population in Nevada. Only when something goes down in Nevada itself, will the public's anger rear it's ugly head.

It's an ugly game of hoodwinking, but that's the price of mixing politics and the Law together. Like sausage making few voters care how laws are made and enforced, they just want it done (America loves winners, at any price and willing to pay for corruption if it'll get things done). :(


Posted by: SandyK | June 9, 2006 08:46 AM

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