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.
Broader overhaul, advocates say, would come with the proposal that would eliminate periodic general elections for most judges. Because that change would alter the state constitution, it would require a more laborious approval process — two votes by the state Legislature and approval by voters.
The Legislature meets only every two years — its next session is scheduled to begin in February 2007 — and can only vote on the proposal once per session. That means the earliest the proposal can land on a ballot is 2010. If approved, it would take effect in 2011.
What's more, Nevada's don't-tread-on-me voters have long been fiercely protective of their right to elect judges; they have twice rejected efforts — in 1972 and 1988 — to change how judges are selected.
The new proposal, however, has been scaled back from the earlier attempts, which did not include any provision for electing judges. Consul, the Las Vegas litigator, said the proposal's requirement that judges face one general election early in their terms is a crucial distinction.
"There is an independent streak that runs through Nevada historically," he said. "That's why this is important."
Not everyone backs the proposal, however.
Larry Sage was a prosecutor and private practitioner in Ventura County for 10 years, but didn't realize how much he had been toiling in anonymity until he moved his family to Nevada in 1985. When he passed the Nevada bar, the then-chief justice of the state Supreme Court, Cliff Young, called to congratulate him. It didn't take long, Sage said, before many judges in Nevada were following his sons' exploits on school sports teams.
Even with Nevada's fast growth, the legal profession remains tight-knit and clubby; there are 7,500 members in the State Bar, compared with 25,000 members of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.
Sage became a municipal court judge in Sparks 11 years ago, defeating a 10-year incumbent after a campaign in which he portrayed his opponent as lacking the proper temperament for the bench. He has won reelection twice since then, once without a challenger.
He acknowledged that there have been times when he has seen an out-of-town lawyer get "hometowned" in court. "But that seems to bother the lawyers more than the public," he said.
Sage said he supported Adams' proposal to ban judges from directly soliciting campaign contributions. "The money is the issue," he said. But as for the second proposal, he said, "the public has far more confidence in officials it elects.
"The judiciary is small. We all know each other," Sage said. "That can be a good element and a bad element. But if you are elected, it's a good element because the public knows you better."
To reform advocates, however, it is more important that the public regain confidence in its system of justice. To bolster their case, some have pointed to the effort to rid casinos of mafia influence.
Nevada used that campaign as a springboard toward legitimacy; many believe it helped lay the foundation for Las Vegas to shed its shady reputation and become a glitzy resort center marketed to families as well as gamblers. Similarly, some boosters believe, an overhauled judiciary could encourage corporate leaders to invest more heavily in Nevada's growth.
"In the law, appearance is very important," Goodenow said. "The members of the public have to believe that the law is just. They have to feel like if they go to court, they will get a fair shake."
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