Nevadan at Work: In District Court, Gonzalez gets down to business


While testifying in March before Clark County District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez, expert witness Chukwuma Ekwueme stumbled while trying to recall details of a case in which he was involved a decade ago.

"Maybe 10 years from now, if someone were to ask, I doubt I would remember (Gonzalez's) name," he said at one point. "I'll remember she was the judge who let me have M&Ms."

Business court cases, in which Gonzalez specializes, generally revolve around arcane and tedious contract clauses and statutes. Gonzalez throws in some homey touches, such as the omnipresent dish of M&Ms on the witness stand.

"For many of the witnesses in front of me, it is the first time they have ever been in a courtroom," she said. "The M&Ms make them just a little more comfortable."

On the rare occasions she conducts a jury trial, Gonzalez brings in homemade banana bread for the jurors.

"I like to show my appreciation for the jurors because without them, our system wouldn't work," she said.

The business court section of District Court, including judges Mark Denton and Susan Scann, is primarily about efficiency. It is designed to provide companies and their people with a forum where the bench is readily familiar with business issues, and can grant quick hearings and render quick decisions.

That has brought the business misfires of some of Las Vegas' biggest names to Gonzalez's 14th floor courtroom, including Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian, the former Las Vegas Hilton, CityCenter, Wayne Newton and the World Market Center.

"Our main goal in business court is to try to find ways to resolve litigation as quickly as possible so the businessman can get back to doing what he does, which is running a business rather than spending time in court," she said.

Question: What most people know about courts and judges comes from what they see on a screen. Are there any TV shows or movies that either get it reasonably right or make you cringe?

Answer: They all make me cringe. That's not how it was when I was a practicing attorney, and it's certainly not how it is as a judge. This gives the public misinformation about the court system.

Business court is very different than in some of the other courts, where there are a higher number of in proper person litigants (without an attorney). I don't see many people who present their case based on what they have seen watching Judge Judy.

Question: Almost every script includes a scene where the judge pounds the gavel and says, "Order in the court." You don't do that.

Answer: I tell my kids that if I have to use the gavel, I have lost the battle. The last time I used my gavel was in the fight over money in the breakup of a law firm (about six years ago). I was a very emotionally charged case. When none of them would listen to me (in a hearing), I finally used my gavel. It didn't work. So I called them all by their first names. They all looked at me and stopped. Then we took a break so they could gather themselves together. If I'm to the point of using a gavel, we take a break.

Question: Was there an adjustment period coming from private practice to the bench?

Answer: Yes. For me, it was hard to observe the different styles that many lawyers have in court compared to the style I have, which is very brief and to the point. You probably observe some times that I get impatient when we go on and on and on about an issue.

But lawyers have a job to do. They're advocates and everybody has a different style. The adjustment has been a challenge to have the patience to let them do what they need to do before I make my ruling.

Question: How long did it take before you felt comfortable as a judge?

Answer: I started my first jury trial my first week. It was a rape case. Since criminal had not been my practice area, it was a good case for me as the first one because it set aside any doubts I had that I could handle it all.

Question: How would you characterize yourself as a judge?

Answer: Hard working and well-prepared. I don't know that you could characterize me as going on one side or the other. In private practice, I was primarily a defense attorney representing a lot of corporations. But I was told when I took the bench I would see a more moderate point of view than I did as a lawyer, and that is very true.

Question: Do you make a particular push in cases to avoid trials?

Answer: Not me. My viewpoint, and its different from other people, is that the best way for a case to be resolved is for the parties to have the information they need to make good business decisions about their case and set a trial date. I do my best to hold those dates.

I try to set settlement conferences early in the case, as soon as (the parties) have the information they need but before they spend a lot of money litigating cases. In most of the cases I see, businesses pay their attorneys fees out of their pockets. If (the parties) can reach a resolution they both think is fair, then that's a great result.

Question: What is a good day for a judge?

Answer: Any day that you have a case that is interesting, parties that are well behaved and lawyers that are well prepared. I would say that happens about half the time for me.

Question: And a bad day?

Answer: When lawyers are fighting among themselves. Those are the worst days for a judge because we are not able to get our job done. It doesn't happen very often.

Question: Throughout your career you have advocated legal aid programs. How did that come about considering you rarely see indigent people in business court?

Answer: I come from a family that has a long history of service and helping other people who are less fortunate. When I became an attorney, I took to heart the obligation to provide service to people who couldn't afford it. I was privileged to work with a number of people in the pro bono organizations when I first started and to start some policies with the law firms I worked with to filter down that philosophy. I think it has worked.

Question: That currently includes the ask-a-lawyer program in the district court.

Answer: That is run by volunteer lawyers, and we at the court are very proud of the efforts they have made to help the litigants.

Contact reporter Tim O'Reiley at toreiley@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5290.

 

Rules for posting comments

Comments posted below are from readers. In no way do they represent the view of Stephens Media LLC or this newspaper. This is a public forum. Read our guidelines for posting. If you believe that a commenter has not followed these guidelines, please click the FLAG icon next to the comment.