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Two new judges face challengers

Two newly appointed district judges in Clark County drew opponents during the filing period that ended Friday, and one of the incumbents has an unusual connection to her challenger.

Carolyn Ellsworth was working in the securities division of the secretary of state's office before Gov. Brian Sandoval appointed her to the Department 5 seat in September. While there, she investigated longtime Nevada lawmaker Morse Arberry and recommended that felony charges be filed against him.

Ellsworth now finds herself facing Arberry's wife, Phung Jefferson, in the November election.

"Just because someone is running doesn't mean they're qualified," Ellsworth said Friday.

Repeated attempts to reach Jefferson for comment were unsuccessful.

A representative of the Clark County recorder's office said Jefferson and Arberry were married on April 30. In October, Arberry pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of fraudulent appropriation of property after prosecutors with the attorney general's office agreed to dismiss six felony counts.

The criminal case stemmed from allegations that Arberry, who served in the Assembly for 25 years, had failed to report more than $120,000 in campaign contributions and diverted the money to a personal checking account. He resigned from the Assembly in August 2010.

Ellsworth said she does not know why Jefferson chose to run against her, but she does know she has more experience.

Jefferson, 41, has been licensed in Nevada since 2001. Ellsworth, 56, has been licensed in the state since 1980.

"I certainly did not feel that I was qualified to be a judge after 10 years of practice," Ellsworth said.

Sandoval appointed Jerry Tao to the Department 20 seat a year ago. Tao will face Las Vegas attorneys Chris Rasmussen and John Eccles. Eccles entered the race late Friday, forcing a June primary.

The winners of both District Court races must run again in 2014 to be elected to a regular six-year term.

Ellsworth has prior experience as a political candidate. She ran for Clark County district attorney in 1994 and lost in the Democratic primary to Stewart Bell, who won the general election.

She ran unsuccessfully against District Judge Kathy Hardcastle in 2002 for the Department 4 seat.

Ellsworth was one of 16 applicants for the Department 5 seat last year. Jackie Glass left the post to serve as a judge on a TV court show. Ellsworth noted that Jefferson did not seek the appointment.

The Nevada Commission on Judicial Selection forwarded the names of three finalists to Sandoval. Ellsworth said the Republican governor chose her, though the two belong to different political parties.

Judicial races are nonpartisan.

Ellsworth said her lengthy and varied legal career has made it easy "to hit the ground running" as a judge.

She spent 10 years prosecuting criminal cases in the Clark County district attorney's office before spending the next decade working as chief litigation counsel for Golden Nugget Inc., which later became Mirage Resorts Inc.

Ellsworth then worked in private practice, primarily handling civil cases, for seven years before joining the secretary of state's office in July 2007.

She is a pilot and a master gardener. She also maintains a 130-gallon saltwater aquarium in her home, and she plans to ride her quarter horse in the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade on Monday in Las Vegas.

"I'm contemplating soap-making as my next project," she said.

Ellsworth has been married to Las Vegas attorney Craig Delk for 31 years.

Tao, 43, also has experience as a political candidate. The Democrat made a failed bid to unseat then-Clark County Commissioner Chip Maxfield, a Republican, in 2004.

Sandoval chose Tao to replace District Judge David Wall, who resigned to take a position with a Las Vegas law firm.

In the 2011 Judicial Performance Evaluation, a survey of Clark County lawyers by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, 80 percent of the respondents favored retaining Tao.

"I hope that's something the voters would keep in mind on Election Day," he said.

Ellsworth was not included in the survey.

Tao, who was born in Taiwan, received his license to practice law in California in 1992 and worked in private practice there for a few years. Then he spent about three years on U.S. Sen. Harry Reid's staff in Washington, D.C., first as a legislative assistant and later as his chief speech writer.

After receiving his Nevada law license in 2001, Tao worked in the criminal division of the Clark County district attorney's office for more than four years before returning to private practice. He joined the Clark County public defender's office in December 2009.

Rasmussen, 41, filed as a candidate for Las Vegas Justice Court in 2002 but reconsidered and withdrew his name.

He grew up in Las Vegas and received a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in 1995.

Rasmussen said he has a "better handle" on the community's needs than Tao.

"I don't think he understands the city as well as I do," Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen has been working in private practice since he received his license to practice law in Nevada in 1998. He said he entered the Department 20 race because he thinks his experience with criminal defendants can help him reduce recidivism as a judge.

Eccles, 45, could not be reached at his office after hours Friday. Last year, he tried to unseat Family Court Judge Bill Gonzalez without success.

At the time, he said 90 percent of the cases he has handled during his career have involved issues of family law. Eccles, who has been licensed in Nevada since 1999, ran unsuccessfully for a Henderson Justice Court seat in 2000.

NEVADA SUPREME COURT

Supreme Court Justices Nancy Saitta, Michael Cherry and Michael Douglas earned free rides to re-election at 5 p.m. Friday when no one filed to challenge their bids for a second full-term on the state's high court.

"I think there are two reasons (for the lack of opposition)," Douglas said. "One, the court is doing a good job and we haven't done anything to give the public an issue. Second, this is a very tough year to run when there is a president, a senator and four congressional seats on the ballot. Raising money is a tough deal."

Cherry said he was thrilled to win without an opponent.

"This is a tough job," said Cherry, noting that the caseload is the highest in the country and that might have dissuaded some lawyers from running. "At times it is overwhelming, since something always comes up."

Without the need to campaign, he added, he will have more time to work on the indigent defense and senior judge programs. Cherry becomes chief justice in April.

The three justices formally win new six-year terms in the November election if one person casts a vote for them. Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, said there is a good reason why more people don't challenge sitting Supreme Court justices and district judges: the power of incumbency.

"Once their names are out there and they are running as incumbents, it is difficult to beat them," said Tobias, a former professor at UNLV's Boyd Law School. "It is true around the country."

Justices receive an annual salary of $170,000, while district judges receive an annual salary of $160,000.

This marks the second consecutive election that the incumbent justices drew no opponents.

"Once they have stood once before the voters and win, they are rarely challenged," Tobias said. "Only in open seats do they get good competition."

Judicial canons prevent sitting justices and judges from seeking campaign contributions if they have no opponents.

Both Cherry and Douglas received 79 percent retention scores in the 2011 Judicial Performance Evaluation. Saitta, currently the chief justice, received the lowest retention score, 56 percent, but still drew no opposition.

"I am honored to be given a chance to finish the work we started," she said. "My sense is this is a solid court, and the public wants us to finish our work."

JUSTICE COURTS

It's safe to suggest Justice of the Peace Joseph Sciscento will be the subject of envy Monday morning at the Regional Justice Center.

He is the only incumbent among five Las Vegas Justice Court judges without an opponent for the 2012 election.

In Department 1, Deborah Lippis drew challenger Vincent Ginn. Nearly 70 percent of the attorneys who participated in the recent survey said Lippis should be retained.

Department 8 Justice of the Peace Ann Zimmerman was challenged by Amy Chelini. Zimmerman received a 68 percent retention rating.

In Department 10, Kelly F. Cawley has opposed incumbent Melanie Andress-Tobiasson, who earned an approval rating of 87 percent.

In Department 5, William Jansen faces four challengers. Jansen's retention score was 73 percent. Cynthia Dustin-Cruz, Robert Kurth, Tony Liker and Steve Smith filed for the judgeship held by Jansen.

In Mesquite, Ron Dodd is calling it quits after donning a robe for more than a quarter century. Seven have tossed their names into that wide-open race: Krystal Alvizo, Karen Beausoleil, Bill Berett, Theron Jensen, Alisia Leavitt, Duane Thurston and Ryan Toone. A couple of them are attorneys, but a law degree isn't required to serve as a justice of the peace in Nevada's rural towns, including those in Clark County.

In North Las Vegas Justice Court, four candidates had filed by Friday for the Department 1 seat, held by longtime Justice of the Peace Stephen Dahl, who is not seeking re-election. The candidates are Michelle Anthony, Willard "Will" Ewing, Kalani Hoo and Jonathan MacArthur.

Justices of the peace hear misdemeanor cases and hold preliminary hearings to determine whether people charged with gross misdemeanors and felonies should stand trial in District Court.

They serve six-year terms and earn annual salaries ranging from $61,000 in Clark County's smallest towns to $184,000 in the busier urban areas.

Review-Journal writers Lynnette Curtis, Doug McMurdo and Ed Vogel contributed to this report. Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at cgeer@reviewjournal.com or 702-384-8710.

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