CARSON CITY — The strength of incumbency is enormous, but it seems to be the most powerful when it involves the Nevada Supreme Court.
The two justices up for re-election are not expected to draw any opponents in 2014.
Justices Mark Gibbons and Kris Pickering plan to file their candidacies on Jan. 6 and then wait for the end of the filing period at 5 p.m. Jan. 17 to see if they draw opponents.
If they are not challenged, each will slide into another six-year term of office.
Challenging an incumbent justice has become increasingly rare in Nevada. Gibbons and Pickering hope their apparent lack of opposition is due to the public’s belief that the court is doing a good job and has avoided controversies.
Few lawyers or district judges these days are willing to spend the time or money to mount campaigns against incumbent justices when the justices have done nothing to attract the public ire.
In the 2012 Supreme Court races, Justices Michael Cherry, Michael Douglas and Nancy Saitta drew no opponents. And neither did Justices Ron Parraguirre and Jim Hardesty when they last ran in 2010.
The last justices who drew opponents were Gibbons and Pickering in 2008. Gibbons beat Frank Christensen by more than a 2-to-1 margin, while Pickering, then seeking her first term on the court, won by about 25,000 votes over Deborah Schumacher of Reno.
Fred Lokken, dean of the Web college and a political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, figures there are three main reasons for this phenomenon — the high cost of financing a statewide election, the fact that the justices’ $170,000-a-year base salary is less than they could make as lawyers for major firms, and the lack of controversy on the current court.
The Supreme Court is the least known of the three branches of government, and public awareness of the court is even lower than normal today because there have been no controversies, he said.
“There is nothing to give fire to the campaigns,” he said. “I don’t see either of them drawing opponents (in January).”
Running for the high court is costly. Pickering spent $1.276 million to gain an election victory in 2008, while Schumacher spent $643,000 in losing..
Lokken said it is difficult to attack incumbents because judicial ethics rules largely prevent them from talking about pending cases and they mostly only can voice platitudes about working hard, being professional and having strong ethics. A opponent might challenge a decision made by a justice, but usually would receive back a response that the judge followed the law and previous decisions.
A 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a Minnesota case in 2002 found judges can take stands on disputed political and judicial issues, but many still avoid answering those types of questions.
There have been personal attacks — like in the race between current Clark County District Judge Steven Jones and Justice Cliff Young — but that was back in 1996.
Under Nevada court rules, judicial candidates without opponents cannot seek any campaign contributions. The judiciary has come under fire when judges handle cases involving lawyers who were large contributors to their campaigns.
To avoid the inherent problem of judges having to finance their elections, most states have moved to some sort of an appointment process for judges, then requiring them to face retention elections in which voters decide if they should remain in office. Now 22 states select judges. Of them, 15, including Nevada, have judges run as nonpartisans.
In 2010, Nevada voters decisively rejected a ballot question that would have led to the appointment of Supreme Court and district judges in the state.
MAUPIN SEES NO OPPOSITION
Former Justice Bill Maupin also doubts there will be any opposition to Gibbons and Pickering.
“This court is perceived to be very strong, both judicially and politically,” said Maupin who returned to the practice of law after serving 12 years on the high court.
Maupin said challengers to justices generally are district court judges. But in the November 2014 election, all district judges will run for election, while in the past some were on different election cycles. That meant a district judge, in the middle of his or her term, might run for the Supreme Court, lose and still have a job.
“It’s all or nothing now,” Maupin said.
Like Lokken, he said there are no current court controversies for an opponent to make a challenge.
“It would take someone with a personal issue to decide to run,” he added.
Deciding who to vote for also is difficult for the average citizens. There are limited ways to find objective information on the performance of judges.
Every-other-year, the Review-Journal releases its “Judging the Judges” poll of lawyers in Clark County. The latest poll results will be released Dec. 29-31.
In recent polls, far more lawyers have voted to retain all seven current justices than request any of them be defeated at the polls.
The Judging the Judges polls are the only way for most members of the public to determine from people who have knowledge of the court’s operations whether individual justices are doing their job.
Nevadans also can review how justices have voted on key cases.
The biggest decision in recent years has been the court’s May 2011 ruling that blocked Gov. Brian Sandoval from using local government funds to balance the state budget.
This decision resulted in Sandoval and most legislators voting to continue $620 million in state sales, business and other states that otherwise would have expired on July 1, 2011. Then earlier this year Sandoval and legislators voted to continue those taxes until July 1, 2015.
But that vote was unanimous and it did not hurt Hardesty or Parraguirre in winning re-election in 2012.
The decision also shows just how important a Supreme Court decision can be in the lives of average Nevadans.
Gibbons, no relation to former Gov. Jim Gibbons, also is the only remaining justice on the court who voted in 2003 to put aside a constitutional prohibition on requiring a two-thirds vote on tax increases. The decision, sought by then Gov. Kenny Guinn and argued by then Attorney General Sandoval, was designed to allow legislators to increase taxes for public education by a simple majority.
But ultimately the decision was not needed since Assemblyman John Marvel, R-Battle Mountain, who has since died, changed his no vote to a yes vote on that July 22. That gave both houses at least two-thirds majorities for nearly $900 million in additional taxes. The court later quietly ruled that their decision only applied in the one case, not any in the future.
Gibbons’ vote did not affect him winning re-election in 2008, although it might have been a factor in 2006 when incumbent Nancy Becker who also voted to set aside the two-thirds tax requirement lost to Saitta.
Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3901. Follow him on Twitter @edison vogel.