Assembly panel looks at appointing judges

CARSON CITY -- Members of the legal establishment testified in support Tuesday of a ballot measure that would change the judicial selection process from competitive elections to appointment and retention of district judges and Supreme Court justices.

But a handful of non-attorneys told the Assembly Judiciary Committee the appointment process would favor the mainstream legal community and not allow for judicial appointees with different points of view. Critics also said the appointment process would not eliminate the need for campaign funds in judicial retention elections.

Senate Joint Resolution 2, which has passed the Senate, would have to be approved by the Legislature twice, this session and in 2009, before voters could weigh in on the issue in the 2010 general election.

If approved as an amendment to the constitution by voters, the new appointment process would take effect beginning in 2012.

Known as the "Missouri Plan," it is being sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, an attorney who has expressed concern about the judicial election process because it requires candidates to seek campaign funds from attorneys and those who have business before the courts.

The committee heard lengthy testimony in for and against the proposal but took no action.

The new process would see sitting District Court judges and high court justices go on the ballot only for retention or not. They would face no opponent. A judge or justice would have to get 60 percent of the vote to continue to serve.

When a vacancy occurred, a judicial selection panel would recommend three candidates to the governor for an appointment. Those appointees then would stand for retention or rejection by voters.

Raggio said that with his more than 50 years of experience as an attorney, this version of the Missouri Plan is superior to two other efforts put to Nevada voters to move to an appointment process.

Both of those efforts failed to win approval.

Under the new proposal, judges running for retention would be reviewed by a panel that would rate performance. A report would then be released to the public, including a recommendation on whether a jurist should be retained.

Raggio said he has proposed the change to the constitution, "because too often we have seen, over many years, judicial elections become embroiled in politics."

"And unlike the rest of us, these people who run for judge or justice are supposed to be unbiased, they are supposed to not have firm opinions one way or another. This appointment system with retention elections would in large measure remove judges from what we see in partisan politics and free judges from the necessity of soliciting political contributions."

A lot of events have occurred in recent years that justify putting the proposal before voters again, Raggio said.

Assemblywoman Francis Allen, R-Las Vegas, said she had concerns with setting the retention level at 60 percent or more. Judges can be subjected to last-minute attacks by opponents, even in retention elections, that could cut an approval rating to below 60 percent, she said.

Raggio said the 60 percent requirement seemed reasonable. Under the process being proposed, the jurist would have no opponent, he said.

The proposal was supported by the State Bar of Nevada.

Bar President Rew Goodenow, a Reno attorney, said the proposal has strong support from the group.

"We believe now is the time for the state to take action and change our system," he said.

But John Wagner, a Carson City resident, said he does not believe Nevada residents are ready to change the system of selecting judges.

"You're still going to have judges putting money in for their re-elections," he said.

Janine Hansen, representing the Independent American Party, said voters have done a good job selecting judges and justices.

Many voters were upset with a 2003 Supreme Court decision invalidating a two-thirds requirement for the Legislature to raise taxes. The ruling, since repudiated, came during a stalemate on tax increases being considered by lawmakers.

The chief justice involved in that opinion did not run for re-election, and another justice who supported the decision lost her re-election bid last year, Hansen said.

One big concern with the proposal is that the judicial establishment would not allow for different perspectives on the bench, she said.


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