A Judge Who Isn’t Playing by Fast and Loose Rules

Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — Judge John S. McGroarty did it differently.

In the last Nevada election in which all district judgeships in Las Vegas were on the ballot, 13 incumbents ran unopposed. Unlike others, McGroarty returned his unspent campaign contributions.

“I sent the money back. It wasn’t mine to keep,” McGroarty said in an interview. “I didn’t have an opponent, so I didn’t need it. I don’t want slush funds … money burning a hole in my pocket.”

Particularly, McGroarty said, when the money comes from those who are likely to appear in court before him. “It can seem like a quid pro quo,” he said.

Not every state judge in Las Vegas plays fast and loose with conflicts of interest. McGroarty, 64, has been a state judge since 1982.

He retired as a regular judge this year and was commissioned as a senior judge to fill in and ease the caseload. He says he does his best to avoid conflicts.

It is not always easy. Being a judge in Las Vegas, McGroarty said, “puts personal integrity to the test.”

“This is a fast track, a fast town — very fast,” he said. “This isn’t Des Moines, Iowa.” He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together to indicate money. “This is a juice town,” he said. “Go out there and start messing with that juice, and it will come back and get you.

“There are crosscurrents. Go out there with impunity, and you will get burned.”

McGroarty said he would never knowingly seek a campaign contribution from anyone with a case pending in his courtroom.

When that sort of thing happened, he often found out. “Somehow,” he said, “the big contributor is always brought to your attention.” Then, McGroarty said, “I’ll take extra time, do more research” to make absolutely certain that all of his decisions in the case are well-supported by the facts.

The 2002 judicial election illustrated how far McGroarty was willing to go to avoid conflicts of interest. The 13 unopposed incumbents, including McGroarty, raised a total of nearly $1 million in contributions well before any challengers could file papers to run against them.

At least 90% of their cash came from lawyers, law firms and casinos that frequented their courtrooms, according to a comparison of court and campaign records. Some of the judges collected contributions, the records show, even while they were deciding a contributor’s case.

The incumbents, including McGroarty, spent part of their campaign money for early displays of determination to scare off potential competitors. “I put up signs around town right away,” McGroarty said, “like everybody else.”

When the filing period closed, all 13 remained unopposed.

Their victories were assured.

But they all had leftover campaign funds. In their campaign filings after the election, other unopposed judges reported that they were still holding a total of $634,000.

McGroarty was the only one who gave his leftover money back.

“Don’t get me wrong. If I had an opponent, I’d use the money,” McGroarty said. “I know other judges keep the money, and that’s their business.”

McGroarty had received 96 contributions, ranging from $20 to $5,000, for a total of $31,666, campaign records show. That was a comparatively small amount of money. Seven unopposed judges had amassed war chests ranging from $69,531 to $166,401, the records show.

McGroarty listed campaign costs totaling $14,759, largely for fundraisers, advertising, campaign staff and office expenses. He reported that he had $16,907 left when the filing deadline passed and he was unopposed.

The following month, he returned his leftover campaign contributions, prorating the returns to each of his 96 contributors. “I think it worked out,” McGroarty said, “that everybody got back about 56 cents on the dollar.”

A $20 contributor, for example, was refunded $14. McGroarty’s lone $5,000 contributor, Coast Hotels and Casinos, was refunded $2,800, records show.

McGroarty said he returned his leftover contributions in 1996, as well, when he also ran unopposed.