Judging a judge

In November, Nevada voters will again be asked to give up their power to select most state judges.

Senate Joint Resolution 2, passed by the Legislature last year, would let the governor make all those selections based on the recommendations of an unelected committee.

Nevada's electorate rejected a similar proposal in 1988. Residents were apparently skeptical of the idea that the state's power brokers could be trusted to act in their best interests, according to their wishes.

Now, just in time for this year's election, comes a cautionary tale for voters, one that may give fodder to both sides of the elect-or-appoint debate.

The story originates down Interstate 15 from Las Vegas, in Victorville, Calif. In January, San Bernardino County Judge Robert Lemkau rendered an unusually harsh opinion against a young mother who was convinced her baby's father would harm the child if allowed contact with the 9-month-old boy.

Katie Tagle, 23, had produced two e-mails sent to her from an untraceable e-mail account. The rambling narratives detailed a father's revenge against an ex-girlfriend who wouldn't reconcile with him: killing their baby and himself.

"My suspicion is that you're lying," Judge Lemkau told Ms. Tagle in denying her request for a restraining order.

Stephen Garcia was granted partial custody of the boy. Ms. Tagle met the man in a Victorville parking lot on Jan. 28 and handed him their son. She refused to renew their relationship.

Three days later Garcia shot the boy to death, then killed himself.

Judge Lemkau is very upset -- not just with the result of his decision, but that voters appear eager to hold him accountable for his ruling.

"It occurred at the worst possible time for my candidacy," Judge Lemkau said of his June 8 election, which lost its low-profile status after details of this case became public.

The judge offered a public apology to Ms. Tagle for calling her a liar. She has responded by backing his challenger.

Interestingly, those who oppose electing judges see this horrible tragedy as supporting evidence for why judges should not be elected.

"If the judge followed the law, it is simply wrong to punish him for that," said Northwestern University law professor Stephen Presser, an expert on judicial elections.

In California, Nevada and 31 other states, that's for voters to decide. For now.

Under the proposal to amend the Nevada Constitution, judges appointed by the governor eventually would have to face voters -- unopposed -- and win 55 percent of the vote to remain on the bench. The electorate would still have a say. It just wouldn't have a choice in selecting replacements.

And that's something San Bernardino County voters clearly want these days.