weather icon Cloudy
RJ App
Vegas News, Alerts, ePaper

Former Clark County judge, veteran lawyer dies from COVID-19

As a judge and longtime attorney in Clark County, Don Chairez lived by the motto, “Dare to be a Daniel.”

“He fought for the Daniels,” said his daughter Marina, referring to the biblical figure. “He’s a fighter, he’s an underdog, and he just dared to defy the odds and swim against the stream.”

But COVID-19 took too much of a toll on his body. He died Thursday after a nearly monthlong battle with the disease. He was 65.

The Nye County district attorney’s office, where Chairez worked for the last two years, joined the sheriff’s office and other agencies in escorting Chairez’s body from Spring Valley Hospital Medical Center to Palm Eastern Mortuary.

District Attorney Chris Arabia said the death was especially difficult, as one of their bailiffs also died from complications of the coronavirus Monday.

“He’s pretty much irreplaceable, both as a man and an attorney,” Arabia said. “He made the courthouse and everyone around him a little bit better every day.”

Arabia described Chairez as a sharp and skilled attorney who also mentored many young lawyers in the office. He said Chairez, who was often studying cross-examination techniques, was well-versed in political history, strategic thinking and the demands of the job.

Chairez’s influence in Nevada stretches back decades, and his experience included immigration law, defense work, and time as a prosecutor and judge.

Theme of compassion

Chairez came to Clark County to be a deputy district attorney in 1991. Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson, who knew him for 30 years, said he remembered his warm smile and compassion.

In one case, when Wolfson was a defense attorney and Chairez a district judge, Chairez heard testimony from Wolfson’s client in an armed robbery case.

When the time came for sentencing, Chairez wanted to give the man probation, but the law called for a mandatory prison sentence.

“He wanted to give him another chance because he got to know this client of mine, even though he couldn’t under the law,” Wolfson said. “A common theme for him was compassion. His death is a loss to the legal community.”

Marina said that over the last week, the family had been inundated with well wishes from around the world from people who have known him and have been affected by his work.

“I was getting so overwhelmed, and I really realized, ‘Wow, my dad has such an incredible story,’” she said.

Marina Chairez, 29, said one of his most important accomplishments was when he defended property owners’ rights in downtown Las Vegas.

In 1995, the then-judge stopped the Las Vegas Redevelopment Agency from seizing the property of a small-business owner simply to turn it over to a large, politically connected casino, ruling that the land grab was an abuse of the city’s powers of eminent domain.

Chairez also drafted the state legislation PISTOL — the People’s Initiative to Stop the Taking of Our Land. PISTOL was approved by voters and added eminent domain rules to the state constitution that protected landowners and made it more difficult for governments to take land.

‘David against the Goliath’

Growing up as a son of an Army master sergeant and a mother who emigrated from Mexico and worked as a housekeeper, the issue of immigration also held a special place in his heart, and he would sometimes take on clients who couldn’t pay for representation.

“He took a lot of pride in helping them become American,” Marina Chairez said. “He was Daniel; he was always the David against the Goliath, who instilled that in us. That’s my dad’s legacy.”

Chairez also ventured into politics. He became a Clark County district judge in 1994 and resigned in 1998 to file as a candidate in the 1st Congressional District race. He lost that race and went into private practice. He also campaigned unsuccessfully to be Clark County district attorney, Nevada attorney general and a justice on the Nevada Supreme Court.

In a 2010 interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, he said: “I liked being able to fight for justice. That’s basically been my whole career.”

In 2008, he told the newspaper, “I went to law school not because I want to become rich, but I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives.”

He even fought for the livelihood of his family. He recently finished championing for his younger brother, Dennis, to get his veterans benefits.

Even in his hospital bed, he wanted to give. He was on the phone, negotiating cases. He told Marina he wanted to donate his Review-Journal subscription to a law student. He also told her to plant a fig tree in the backyard of her new home in his memory.

The day before he was intubated, she asked him if he felt God.

“Every five minutes; he’s keeping me alive,” he texted back.

He is survived by his wife, Maria; two daughters, Marina and Monica; two brothers, David and Dennis; and a sister, Dina Schwalbach.

Contact Briana Erickson at berickson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5244. Follow @ByBrianaE on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.