Free speech test for judicial reform

Times Staff Writer

Banning judges from personally soliciting or accepting campaign contributions would not represent an improper restriction on their constitutional rights and would help restore the integrity of Nevada’s troubled judiciary, an advocate for reform has argued.

The Nevada Supreme Court is expected to decide in coming months whether to implement the ban. The measure would put Nevada in line with much of the rest of the nation, and advocates believe it would mark a significant step in judicial reform.

First, however, the Nevada Supreme Court asked Washoe County District Judge Brent Adams, who petitioned the court to make the change, to address the thorny issue of whether the ban might represent an unconstitutional limit on free speech.

That issue has divided other courts in recent years. Early this year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to resolve the matter, despite requests from the American Bar Assn. and dozens of U.S. corporations seeking to protect the credibility of judicial elections.


In August, in a document requesting Adams’ input, Nevada Supreme Court justices suggested that they sympathized with judges from other states who had found that similar prohibitions were unconstitutional. The Nevada justices cited one 2002 opinion, written by a federal appeals court, which held that judges raising money on the campaign trail “does not suggest that they will be partial if they are elected.”

But Adams, in a 17-page document, argued that those sorts of legal opinions were “seriously flawed,” partly because they failed to take into account the question of whether states have the authority to address not only actual corruption but “the appearance that justice was for sale.”

In that broader context, Adams argued, “a limited restriction on First Amendment freedoms may be warranted.”

“In Nevada, there is no better time to address these concerns than now,” said Adams’ brief, which was submitted on his behalf by two attorneys from one of Nevada’s leading appellate law firms. The proposal “would send a strong message that Nevada values an independent and impartial judiciary and is dedicated to upholding, and restoring, the public’s trust in Nevada state judges,” the brief said.

In an interview, Adams said the ban would represent “sound public policy.”

A Nevada Supreme Court spokesman did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The proposed restriction on judges’ campaign activities is part of a wide-ranging reform effort launched in the wake of a Los Angeles Times investigation.

The Times investigation found that Nevada judges had awarded millions of dollars worth of judgments without disclosing that the money went to friends, business partners and former clients. The Times also disclosed that 17 incumbents in recent judicial elections raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from attorneys and corporations with cases pending before the judges.