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Traveling circuit judge in Nevada a throwback to bygone era

GOLDFIELD

Kim Wanker has a serious case of lead foot.

Trained as a professional race car driver, she thrives on the exhilaration that comes with going fast, pedal to the metal, as the high-desert hurtles past her car window.

For the 54-year-old Wanker (pronounced wonker), speed takes her mind off her stressful work — dealing with accused wife beaters, child molesters and drug abusers across central Nevada.

She’s a traveling circuit judge, one of two Fifth District judges in Nye County who still dispense justice the way it was done when the Silver State was still a territory. The task requires a lot of driving; thousands of miles each year, sometimes at a pretty fair clip.

The bespectacled black-robed judge doesn’t wait for lawbreakers to be brought to her. She goes to them, gavel in hand, to administer a disappearing brand of justice on the road.

Wanker covers two vast counties, Nye and Esmeralda — a combined area about the size of West Virginia. Based in Pahrump, she also holds court in Goldfield and Tonopah, county seats whose meager populations don’t merit a full-time judge.

The job is indeed a throwback: Both Wanker and her rotating counterpart, Fifth District Judge Robert Lane, have received death threats from fathers who thought they deserved custody of their children and parents who didn’t think their sons merited prison.

Just for that reason, she packs a 9mm handgun, drives an unmarked car and is often accompanied by a bailiff, just to be on the safe side. Still, she holds court in old buildings without metal detectors, her bailiff as her only backup.

But even he can’t protect her from run-ins with Nevada Highway Patrol troopers who spot her Chrysler zipping through the desert like the roadrunner in those old cartoons. Some take Wanker’s highway faux pas in stride, joking, “Late for court again today, are we?”

Others demonstrate a stern fortitude.

“Hey judge, you need to slow down,” one officer said tersely, standing by her driver’s window. “If I catch you again, I AM going to write you a ticket.”

Wanker slowed down. She never asks for leniency, knowing the officers have a job to do, just like she does when she takes the bench.

In court, she’s known for her fairness and work ethic, often staying up overnight to best prepare for the following day’s cases. Her acquittal rate is near 50 percent in an era when many conservative justices convict at a 90 percent rate.

Yet prosecutors, defense attorneys and defendants alike know her as “The Hammer,” a no-nonsense judge who doesn’t suffer liars in her courtroom, who may well offer one chance at redemption but rarely a second. She’s an adjudicator whose quiet smiling demeanor can change swiftly if she’s pushed too far.

“I’m speaking, so zip it,” she tells a defendant during a proceeding in Goldfield.

With another, she’s more like a miffed parent.

“You’re clean, really?” she asks a young drug offender.

“Yes.”

“You know your drug test came up dirty, so cut the (B.S.).”

Wanker’s job has deep roots in legal history.

King Henry II, who ruled England from 1154 to 1189, instituted the custom of judges roaming the countryside “on circuit,” rather than hauling defendants to London.

Much later, a young Abraham Lincoln traveled on horseback alongside Illinois justices who often rode in more comfortable stagecoaches.

Today, circuit judges are mostly found in the West. Most of mammoth Montana’s 56 counties, for example, are served by circuit courts.

Each month Wanker hits U.S. Highway 95, which cuts a swath through the wild heart of Nevada between Las Vegas and Reno. She dodges wandering burros and windblown tumbleweeds, rousting resentful crows from roadside kills.

Her legal domain averages three people per square mile — population density that rivals Siberia. With just 300 registered voters in sprawling Esmeralda County, she struggles to seat juries in which the members aren’t all related.

JUSTICE SERVED

In Goldfield’s vintage-1907 stone courthouse the lawyers are set, audience in their seats, the accused already ushered into court.

Just one thing is missing.

“Where’s Judge Wanker?” someone asks.

“Oh, she’s probably stuck in traffic in that construction on 95,” comes the response.

Soon Wanker rushes into her chambers, looking hardly justice-like in slacks, a red University of Nebraska sweatshirt, a gavel-shaped pin on her lapel.

Donning her black robe, she takes her place on the court’s original steel judge’s bench, sitting beneath faux Tiffany lamps, under a majestic mounted bighorn sheep head confiscated decades ago from some luckless poacher.

She bangs her gavel in a courthouse steeped in history. Famed lawman Virgil Earp was once sheriff here. The courtroom’s public seats each still bear a holder for a Stetson.

Courthouse hallways offer up relics of another era: letters from lawyers written in 1911 and a sign warning that “Those who expect to rate as gentlemen will not expectorate on the floor.” There are displays of long-ago cattle brands and a glass case displaying a blackjack and a handwritten card saying the “leather-covered bludgeon” was used to “subdue a person by giving them a good whack. Very effective.”

A century ago, Goldfield was a thriving mining town of 20,000 wanderers and rapscallions.

“Defendant ragged and filthy,” a judge wrote of one accused. “Nothing but a cigar stump found on him.”

In a case involving another vagrant, the court ruled: “He is too lazy to work but is harmless. Given a warning not to come back this way.”

On this morning, Wanker heard a plea from an alleged Oregon drug runner who said he missed one court appearance because his private plane ran out of gas in Death Valley.

Next came a man accused of numerous sex offenses that could bring a life sentence without parole. He insisted on representing himself at trial. Wanker didn’t think that was such a good idea.

“You seem to have all the answers,” she tells him. “You might want to talk a little less and listen a little more. This isn’t my first rodeo.”

And she warns a drug offender in court on a probation violation: “Do not lie to me. You mess up, you tell me the truth. One thing I cannot stand is lying.”

Wanker hears nearly 1,000 civil and criminal cases a year. Many involve sex crimes and drugs. Some feature speeders found with opiates in their cars during a traffic stop out on that long, lonely highway.

The morning breezes by. Finally, Wanker leaves the bench for the drive to Tonopah, where she will hear a docket of afternoon cases.

FINDING THE RIGHT FIT

Wanker grew up in Nebraska and spent most of her career as an attorney working in employment law, with several major Las Vegas casinos as clients.

Single, with no children, she’s a tomboy who collects vintage cars and rides motorcycles, mountain bikes and jet skis. One of the draws of becoming a judge in Pahrump was the opportunity to light out each month for open territory, reveling in the freedom of the road.

She said she admires the independent spirit of the rural West. Not far from the 10-acre spread in Pahrump she shares with her three Labradors, one of her neighbors keeps a pet lion.

In 2011, Wanker was appointed to fill a vacancy on the bench by Gov. Brian Sandoval. She won the subsequent election after attending barbecues and town-hall meetings to get to know the communities she represents. At most stops she handed out gavel-shaped pieces of chocolate.

“Rural Nevada is a collection of small towns,” she said. “You do what you can to fit in.”

The judge’s reputation has spread beyond the Nevada desert. An independent film crew is marketing a TV reality show called “Travelin’ Justice,” based on the exploits of Wanker and Lane. Another outfit is working on a script, based on Wanker, about a rural Western judge with an all-female staff.

“Just the amount of cases these two judges handle blew us away — from murder and rape to business squabbles and name changes,” said “Travelin’ Justice” producer Ken Brisbois. “I mean, there aren’t metal detectors in these courtrooms. The bailiff has to be a better shot than the person coming through the door.”

The trailer for the show shows a ground-view closeup of Lane and Wanker walking a lonely highway, their shoes crunching on the asphalt, until they turn and face the camera, arms crossed. Subtitle cards read, “Rural Nevada is the modern day Wild West. In these parts, when they ride into town, everyone knows the law’s a comin’.”

And when Wanker is behind the wheel, justice arrives at a high rate of speed.

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