The voting public can be forgiven for considering the advice of sketchy political outfits that work to influence elections.
When politicians are all too eager to latch onto groups with important-sounding names that suggest independence, clout and broad membership, citizens have little reason to ignore the groups — even if they have no idea who’s behind them.
Consider the growing following of Nevada Judicial Watch. Less than a year old, it exists primarily as a Facebook page and Twitter account, but it recently branched out to sponsor a meet-and-greet event with Clark County judges put on last month by Veterans in Politics International, another local group of dubious legitimacy.
Nevada Judicial Watch has about 1,000 followers on Facebook, including state lawmakers, county commissioners, city council members, statewide office holders, judges and scores of attorneys. It’s an anonymously operated page, purporting to be “a group of lawyers and judges” who share their courtroom observations. Postings generally rate the best and worst judges in the valley and occasionally single out attorneys for praise and scorn. The page has called on a handful of attorneys to run for election next year against the incumbent judges it says need to be replaced.
Considering the limited amount of information available to voters regarding the judiciary, it’s understandable that citizens might find the content interesting. The legal community, meanwhile, loves juicy gossip. Nevada Judicial Watch is good for plenty of that, going so far as accusing various judges of engaging in ex-parte communications.
But Nevada Judicial Watch clearly has other high-priority causes: slamming the Review-Journal and its biennial judicial performance evaluations; and, curiously, defending and praising indicted and suspended Family Court Judge Steven Jones.
I occasionally took the time to make comments on Nevada Judicial Watch’s Facebook postings, usually to defend the Review-Journal’s “Judging the Judges” survey of attorneys (about a decade ago, when I worked for the Review-Journal’s City Desk, I helped edit the package). The survey — which is being conducted again right now — has its limitations, but for more than 20 years, it has been extremely effective at identifying the best and worst judges for voters, something Nevada Judicial Watch supposedly attempts to do as well. I frequently noted that although the site ripped the R-J survey, Nevada Judicial Watch’s best and worst ratings were always very similar to the newspaper’s.
But Nevada Judicial Watch’s insistence on including Jones on its list of top judges made no sense. Last year, Jones was indicted by a federal grand jury in connection with a $3 million investment fraud scheme, accused of using the power of his office to carry out the fraud. In addition, the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline soon will hear a 12-count complaint against Jones regarding his romantic relationship with a deputy district attorney who appeared before him; he failed to disqualify himself from her cases. That prosecutor, Lisa Willardson, was fired after the relationship was made public by the Review-Journal. The arrogant Jones then tried to ban from his courtroom the prosecutors who had a hand in reporting the relationship. And Willardson, well, she hates this newspaper with a passion.
Nevada Judicial Watch paid unusual attention to Jones’ legal battles, given his obvious personal shortcomings. Coincidentally, two of the jurists the page consistently rated as being among the worst on the bench were District Judges Kathleen Delaney and Michael Villani, who have heard Jones’ attempts to derail his disciplinary proceedings. Also, coincidentally, one attorney frequently singled out for praise and encouraged to run for a judgeship is Jim Jimmerson, Jones’ lawyer.
Wouldn’t you know it, back in June, I received an email tirade on Jones’ legal fights from firstname.lastname@example.org. The account identified the sender by name: Lisa Willardson, the prosecutor fired for having a romantic relationship with Jones.
So I called out Willardson by name in a comment on a Nevada Judicial Watch Facebook post last week — and was immediately blocked from the page. A colleague confirmed my posts were removed. Then I called out Willardson by name on Twitter. No denials were issued.
Then things got weird. I got a Facebook friend request from Willardson. I commented on Twitter that I wouldn’t accept it, and NevadaJudicialWatch (@NevadaJudiciary) responded “Of course not — too cowardly.” The person behind the Twitter account threatened to sue me.
One public service the Nevada Judicial Watch Facebook page provides is monthly totals of peremptory challenges in Clark County District Court — when lawyers pay a fee to shift their case to another judge. Bad judges tend to pile up quite a few such challenges each month. The monthly challenge totals are public records. What some folks don’t realize, however, is that public records requests are also public records. Someone from Nevada Judicial Watch was asking for and obtaining those records. So I asked Court Information Officer Mary Ann Price if Willardson had submitted any records requests with the court.
“She submits monthly requests for peremptory challenges,” Price said.
Bingo. That brings us back to Veterans in Politics International, which hardly reflects the political consensus of valley veterans, but appears to because of its name and thus has politicians — including judges — lined up for its endorsement. I asked Steve Sanson, the group’s president, who he deals with at Nevada Judicial Watch, considering it sponsored one of his events.
“I wish I could tell you, but I’ve been sworn to secrecy,” he said.
I asked him if Lisa Willardson and Steven Jones were behind Nevada Judicial Watch. Long pause. “You’re killing me, Glenn Cook!”
Next, I asked Sanson if Willardson would have a spot on the Veterans in Politics panel that interviews and issues endorsements for judicial candidates next year.
“How the (expletive) did you know that?” he said. “That was a conversation I had just with her! Are you bugging my phone?” He said she might be on the panel. Sanson added that Jones hasn’t been convicted of any wrongdoing, that he has known Jones “for a long time” and that he values loyalty.
I emailed Willardson seeking comment, but didn’t get a response.
So let’s connect the dots and lay out a hypothetical scenario. The disgraced girlfriend of a disgraced judge creates a website to wage a positive PR campaign for her boyfriend, while creating the illusion of an independent source of information on the judiciary, gaining the following of the state’s political establishment in the process. The public follows the politicians’ lead. Said girlfriend uses the site to attack the area’s only credible source of information on judicial performance, and she forms an alliance with another known entity that issues judicial endorsements, with the hope of rewarding the friends of said disgraced boyfriend and punishing his enemies, and ultimately getting him re-elected despite his considerable baggage. A lot of voters fall for it.
Quite a story, isn’t it? Cast an informed vote.
Glenn Cook (email@example.com) is the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s senior editorial writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Glenn_CookNV. Listen to him Mondays at 4 p.m. on “Live and Local with Kevin Wall” on KXNT News Radio, 100.5 FM, 840 AM.