Judiciary members to query LV lawyer

Las Vegas attorney Gloria Navarro is one of six nominees scheduled to appear today before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

President Barack Obama nominated Navarro, 42, in December to replace U.S. District Judge Brian Sandoval, who gave up the lifetime appointment to run for governor.

"It's just a foregone conclusion at this point that she will be confirmed," said Tuan Samahon, a former law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Among the information provided to Obama before he proposed Navarro for the job was an evaluation performed by the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary.

While the standing committee's rating becomes public after a nomination is made, a report detailing the investigation is kept confidential. The 15-member committee rates nominees either "well qualified," "qualified" or "not qualified."

In Navarro's case, a "substantial majority," consisting of 10 to 13 members, rated her "qualified." However, a minority rated her "not qualified."

The Bar Association committee has evaluated 43 judicial nominees during the past year. The committee found all of the nominees qualified and rated most of them "well qualified." Only one other nominee, O. Rogeriee Thompson of Rhode Island, a candidate for the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, received the same rating as Navarro.

Yet several legal experts, including Samahon, said they did not expect Navarro's rating to hinder her confirmation.

"I think that it's unlikely to be an issue, but it could be," former UNLV law professor Carl Tobias said. "So far the Republicans have not made much of an issue of the ABA ratings."

The Senate Judiciary Committee recently voted to move Thompson's nomination to a vote before the full Senate.

Last year, the American Bar Association resumed its long-standing practice of providing the White House with its evaluations of prospective nominees. In March 2001, the Bush administration departed from that practice and chose not to submit the names of prospective nominees to the Bar Association's standing committee.

"It's pretty controversial," said Tobias, who now teaches at the University of Richmond in Virginia. "The Republicans have always felt that the ABA is just some liberal group."

According to the Bar Association, every president from 1953 through 2000 consulted with the Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary regarding prospective nominations for federal judgeships. From 2001 through 2008, the committee conducted its evaluations after the president submitted the names of nominees to the U.S. Senate.

Sandoval, who was nominated in March 2005, was rated "well qualified" by a majority of the committee and "qualified" by a minority. A majority consists of eight or nine members.

The committee considers three criteria in evaluating the professional qualifications of prospective judges: professional competence, integrity and judicial temperament.

Tobias and Samahon both suspect Navarro's lack of judicial experience resulted in a minority of the committee rating her "not qualified."

Navarro, who works as a chief deputy district attorney in the civil division of the Clark County district attorney's office, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

She was recommended for the federal judgeship by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who also could not be reached Wednesday. He is scheduled to testify about Navarro today before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Reid was to testify Wednesday, but the meeting was postponed because of bad weather.

Tobias said many of Obama's nominees have been sitting judges.

"The ABA just may find those nominees more traditional and rate them more strongly," he said.

Samahon, who now teaches at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, reviewed a 23-page questionnaire Navarro completed for the Senate committee and noticed the void that followed a question about judicial offices held.

Navarro simply answered, "I have not held judicial office."

Nevertheless, Samahon said plenty of people have become federal judges without prior judicial experience. From 2003 to 2004, Samahon worked as a law clerk for Judge Jay Bybee, a former UNLV law professor who sits on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Bybee had no prior judicial experience before he was nominated in 2002. A substantial majority of the Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary rated him "well qualified," and a minority rated him "qualified." That was before the public learned about his controversial role in preparing so-called torture memos while employed as a senior Justice Department lawyer.

Clark County Public Defender Phil Kohn, Navarro's boss in the Clark County special public defender's office from 2001 to 2004, said he had two lengthy phone conversations with an American Bar Association attorney who was working on Navarro's evaluation.

"The interviewer left me with the impression that he was not looking for public attorneys -- either DAs or public defenders, and she's been both -- which is troubling to me, because we're the lawyers who spend a great deal of time in actual trials and in the courtroom," Kohn said.

Kohn said he could not discuss details of the conversations, which were confidential, and he has not seen the committee's evaluation.

"I know from working with Gloria Navarro that she has exceptional organizational skills and a very good working knowledge of the rules of evidence," he said. "And she's exactly the person I would want presiding over complex litigation."

As a deputy special public defender, Navarro handled murder cases. She joined the Clark County district attorney's office in 2005. She worked in private practice from 1994 to 2001.

UNLV law professor Sylvia Lazos, who has written articles about diversity on the federal bench, said she welcomes the nomination of a Hispanic woman for a U.S. District Court seat in Nevada. The rest of the state's U.S. District Court judges are white men.

"It's very important for the federal bench to reflect what that region's demographics look like," Lazos said.

She said Navarro's rating is just one of many components the Senate will consider before voting on the nominee.

Prospective federal judges undergo background investigations by the Justice Department and the FBI. Lazos said they also must answer detailed questions during the confirmation process.

"Ultimately, 100 senators will make up their minds as to whether that nominee is qualified," the professor said.

Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at cgeer@reviewjournal.com or 702-384-8710.