Updated 

Court says poker ace's wife received fair deal in divorce

Correction
03/31/13 -- District Judge Jennifer Togliatti’s title was incorrect in a Friday story about poker star Phil Ivey’s divorce. Togliatti is chief judge of the Criminal/Civil Division.

A ruling in the divorce case of poker star Phil Ivey will stand despite allegations by his ex-wife that the cards were stacked against her in the Nevada judicial system.

The state Supreme Court on Thursday denied a petition by Luciaetta Ivey that sought to overturn a decision by judge Jennifer Togliatti allowing Judge Bill Gonzalez to hear the case despite having received campaign contributions from Phil Ivey and his lawyer, David Chesnoff.

Chesnoff described the decision as vindication that the state’s judicial system is transparent and fair.

“We are particularly pleased that a unanimous Supreme Court agreed there were absolutely no improprieties on the part of the court or any of the parties,” he said.

Bruce Shapiro, the attorney for Luciaetta Ivey, disagreed and said the decision could leave Nevadans the impression the system is stacked in favor of people with the means to make campaign contributions.

“The whole point is what does it look like,” Shapiro said. “In any other context that would look like a bribe.”

But Shapiro credited the justices for even discussing the touchy issue when they could have dismissed it summarily.

The decision stemmed from the poker star’s December 2009 divorce decree that included alimony payments of $180,000 per month if Ivey was receiving income from a major sponsor.

In May 2011 after a dispute over the alimony, Luciaetta Ivey filed a motion to reopen discovery in the case, which was assigned to Gonzalez.

Luciaetta Ivey then filed a motion to disqualify Gonzalez because, she had learned, Phil Ivey, Chesnoff, Chesnoff’s wife, another attorney in Chesnoff’s firm and John Spilotro, an attorney Phil Ivey had paid to represent Luciaetta Ivey, had donated a combined $10,000 in cash to Gonzalez in 2010.

The cash amounted to 14 percent of Gonzalez’s contributions.

Judge Jennifer Togliatti ruled against Luciaetta Ivey’s motion to disqualify Gonzalez, leading to an appeal to the Supreme Court.

In their decision, the justices stated that not only were the contributions legal, they were not of enough significance to give the appearance of impropriety.

“Without more, the campaign contributions are insufficient to demonstrate that actual or implied bias existed on the part of Judge Gonzalez,” Justices Mark Gibbons and Michael Cherry wrote. “Campaign contributions made within statutory limits cannot constitute grounds for disqualification of a judge under Nevada law.”

Although the justices agreed unanimously the contributions were legal and there was no evidence of impropriety in the case, a concurring opinion by Justice Nancy Saitta said that Nevada’s judicial system would benefit from clearer rules covering campaign donations to judges.

“And I reiterate that under the current contribution rules, Judge Gonzalez did nothing wrong,” Saitta wrote in her opinion.

She later added, however, that other states such as Alabama, California and New York have clearer rules covering contributions of certain dollar amounts within specific time frames before and after elections.

Saitta also said that though the contributions to Gonzalez from Ivey and his associates came after the divorce decree, there was reason to believe issues of alimony could end up back in front of the judge.

“These circumstances create an appearance of impropriety that the judiciary should strive to avoid,” she wrote.

The case was No. 59297 Luciaetta Marie Ivey vs. The Eighth Judicial District Court of the State of Nevada and Judge Jennifer P. Togliatti with Phillip Dennis Ivey, Jr., listed as a real party in interest.

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0285 .

 

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