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Three Las Vegas Judges Face High Court Review

Times Staff Writer

The Nevada Supreme Court has asked three Las Vegas judges to respond to reports that they have engaged in conflicts of interest, favoritism and other questionable practices.

Based on the responses of those senior judges and a review of the allegations, first detailed in the Los Angeles Times, the state Supreme Court will decide whether to take action, Chief Justice Robert E. Rose said.

In an interview, Rose also called for beefing up the state agency responsible for investigating judges, and for making it easier to remove senior judges from cases.

The Times articles, published this month, detailed what appeared to be widespread conflicts of interest, favoritism and violations of judicial canons by Las Vegas judges.

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The reports focused on eight current or former district court judges and a sitting federal judge. The Supreme Court’s inquiry is the first known step toward investigating the allegations.

News media and political commentators in Las Vegas have condemned the behavior described in the reports, and numerous Nevada lawyers praised the disclosures as a step toward reform.

At least two efforts are underway to change state laws governing the way Nevada’s judges are chosen and to restrict campaign fundraising by judges. Similar efforts in previous years have been rebuffed by voters or the Legislature.

Beyond the Supreme Court’s inquiry, officials charged with investigating possible judicial wrongdoing either have not responded to the reports or have spoken out in defense of the state’s judges. Some have said The Times articles were unfair.

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The Supreme Court said it was limiting its inquiry to the three senior judges because the high court appointed and directly oversaw them.

The job of investigating district court judges would fall to the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline. That group’s executive director, David F. Sarnowski, said he was prohibited by law from disclosing if a complaint had been lodged against a judge or if an investigation was underway.

If a complaint were to result in a hearing, “even then the material is not publicly accessible,” Sarnowski said.

Similarly, the chief judge of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco would decide whether to investigate any complaint against U.S. District Judge James C. Mahan of Las Vegas, another jurist cited in The Times articles. That process is also confidential.

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Nevada Atty. Gen. George Chanos said he did not intend to investigate the judges because that responsibility rested first with the state Supreme Court, the State Bar of Nevada and the Commission on Judicial Discipline.

Chanos said he was “disturbed by what I read,” adding: “I think you will see a response from the legal community. I hope it’s a comprehensive and well-considered response. If that response were to prove inadequate, at that time it might be appropriate for our office to get involved.”

At the same time, Chanos defended the state’s judiciary and objected to Nevada being singled out. The attorney general, who practiced law in San Diego for 10 years, said the kinds of problems cited in the articles could be found in any large city.

“I think the L.A. Times did a service in raising these issues. But I think it’s unfair to create the impression that this is some kind of backwater town with frontier justice,” Chanos said. “Give me a year or two to investigate L.A. judges, and I’ll come up with a similar kind of story.”

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Rose, the chief justice, disputed the newspaper’s assertion that senior judges -- a special category of jurists subject to different rules -- had little accountability because they were not elected. They are evaluated regularly by the high court, he said.

However, unlike other judges, they cannot be removed from a case by peremptory challenge. Rose said Thursday that he would recommend that prohibition be lifted.

The chief justice also urged a “substantial expansion” of the Commission on Judicial Discipline so that it could process complaints more quickly. “It may well mean they need more money,” he said. The commission has a staff of 2 1/2 people, including Sarnowski.

The high court’s spokesman, Bill Gang, noted that much of the questionable behavior cited by The Times took place “five, 10 or 15 years ago.”

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“I question the relevance,” Gang said. “Our judicial system has matured greatly in the past several years.”

None of the facts in The Times reports has been challenged. “It appears all their facts are accurate.... We take the allegations very seriously,” Rose said.

The senior judges asked to respond within three weeks to the articles were James A. Brennan, Joseph S. Pavlikowski and Stephen L. Huffaker. They have declined to comment.

Among numerous assertions about the judges were that Brennan presided over at least 16 cases involving participants in his real estate ventures; that Pavlikowski accepted $2,800 in “comps,” or giveaways, from a casino whose boss later had cases before him, and that he showed repeated favoritism in rulings for the drunk-driving clients of a former law clerk; and that Huffaker presided over several cases involving casinos while they were providing his son with jobs and an $11,000 scholarship.

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Mahan was a state district judge in Las Vegas until he joined the federal bench four years ago. In those two capacities, he was reported to have approved more than $4.8 million in judgments and fees without disclosing long-standing ties to those who benefited from the actions. Mahan has denied any conflict of interest.

The Times articles traced many of the questionable practices to the fact that Nevada judges facing election felt compelled to raise campaign funds. Most of the money comes from lawyers or companies that appear before the same judges in court cases.

Bill Raggio, Republican majority leader in the state Senate, has said he plans to introduce legislation to require that judges be appointed instead of elected, thus eliminating the campaign issue. The Supreme Court and the state bar have endorsed such action before, and Rose said Thursday he would push hard for it again. But that would require a change in the state constitution, and voters have rejected it twice.

The state’s legal establishment is preparing legislation to free judges from raising campaign funds unless someone is running against them. Most judges run unopposed, yet they raise tens of thousands of dollars to run campaigns. Much of the money goes unspent and is not always accounted for, The Times reported.

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