Voters want final word on judges

Most Nevadans still oppose changing how state judges are selected, but a clear majority backs creation of an appellate court to ease pressure on the state Supreme Court, according to a new poll commissioned by the Review-Journal and KLAS-TV, Channel 8.

In the poll, conducted last week, 54 percent of those surveyed said they would vote against Senate Joint Resolution 2, which would allow the governor to appoint all judges, while 58 percent supported creating a new appellate court.

In an April survey, 59 percent of the respondents opposed the overhaul measure, Senate Joint Resolution 2, which will be on the November ballot.

"As long as a majority are voting no, it's going to lose," said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research of Washington, D.C.

Mason-Dixon conducted both polls, which had margins of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, by interviewing 625 registered Nevada voters. The more recent survey was conducted last Monday through Wednesday.

In both polls, voters were told that Senate Joint Resolution 2 would amend the state constitution.

"Instead of electing judges through a vote of the people, it will allow governors to appoint all judges, including Supreme Court justices, from candidates selected by the Commission on Judicial Selection," voters were told. "After their initial appointment, these judges and justices would have to stand for 'retention elections' and secure at least 55 percent of the vote to win re-election."

Nevada lawyers have shown support for the proposal in recent years, but voters rejected similar ballot questions in 1972 and 1988.

"I think people are always reluctant to give up their right to vote for any public office, and that is probably particularly true in the current anti-incumbent political environment," Coker said.

In the earlier poll, 29 percent favored the measure, while 13 percent called themselves undecided. In the more recent poll, 27 percent favored the change with 19 percent undecided. Coker predicted that most of the undecided respondents will vote no.

"I think that there hasn't yet been a tremendous amount of public education conducted on the issue, and it will be interesting to see when that begins whether that will change," said Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, a lawyer who supports the resolution.

Buckley, D-Las Vegas, said former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor already has visited Las Vegas to advocate for the new judicial selection system and is expected to return before the election.

"She's made this issue one of her priorities in her retirement years," Buckley said.

Buckley said voters have a hard time learning about judicial candidates.

"We have great judges who are elected -- don't get me wrong -- but there is so little information out there about the quality of the judges that sometimes unqualified judges are elected," she said.

Buckley said Nevada's current election of judges, who often raise campaign funds from lawyers who appear before them, creates the appearance that justice is for sale. "There's so much money changing hands," she said. "It would be nice to see less of that."

State Sen. Mark Amodei, R-Carson City, opposes the resolution.

"I just saw it as a thing that basically puts the judiciary farther out of touch from the people that it serves," he said in April.

Amodei, a lawyer, said judges still would need to raise money to campaign for retention.

Buckley said she also supports the upcoming ballot measure that proposes creation of a state appellate court in Nevada. The intermediate court would handle appeals from state district courts and help reduce the Nevada Supreme Court's caseload, which Buckley described as one of the highest in the nation.

"I believe that it will improve the judicial system in Nevada," she said.

Buckley said voters would authorize creation of the court, but the Legislature would decide when to launch it.

"You wouldn't fund a new program in the middle of a recession," she said.

Voters were not asked about the appellate court in April. In the new poll, only 14 percent opposed it while 28 percent were undecided.

"I think people want to see more efficiency in the court system just as a general rule," Coker said.

According to the state Supreme Court's website, Nevada is one of 11 states without an intermediate appellate court. Voters rejected proposals to add such a court in 1980 and 1992.

Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at or 702-384-8710.