If potential judicial candidates are looking for vulnerable incumbents to challenge in next year’s election, they will find plenty in Family Court.
Clark County lawyers who responded to the 2013 Judicial Performance Evaluation, sponsored by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, think voters should replace a quarter of that court’s judges.
Attorney Bruce Shapiro, who has practiced in Family Court since it opened in 1993, said he thinks his colleagues are growing frustrated with the increase in judges who lack prior family law experience.
“For the most part, lawyers who did not have family law experience do not make good Family Court judges,” he said.
Shapiro said some lawyers who want to be judges see Family Court as “low-hanging fruit” and “think it’s the easiest court to get elected to.”
“They don’t give any consideration to the fact that it is a specialty,” he said.
When the court opened, it had six judges, and each had a background in family law. Today it has 20 judges, including some who had little or no experience with family law when they were elected.
All 20 Family Court judges must face voters next year, and the majority of survey respondents said five of them should not be retained.
Two judges, Cheryl Moss and Kenneth Pollock, made repeat appearances on the “do not retain” list this year. Three others joined the list: Steven Jones, Gayle Nathan and Sandra Pomrenze.
Only Pollock and Nathan responded to requests for comment on their scores.
Jones, first elected to Family Court in 1992, has received decent marks in past surveys, but this year’s scores likely were tainted by his highly publicized ethical and criminal woes.
The Nevada Judicial Discipline Commission suspended Jones after his federal indictment in November 2012.
In the criminal case, Jones is accused of participating in a $3 million investment fraud scheme that spanned a decade.
Misconduct allegations investigated by the judicial commission involved a relationship Jones had with former Deputy District Attorney Lisa Willardson when she appeared before him in 2011. In a decision filed on Christmas Eve, the commission concluded Jones had committed professional misconduct by maintaining the romantic relationship. Willardson was found dead on Thursday, and an autopsy is planned.
Only 30 percent of the lawyers who rated Jones this year think he should keep his position. Of the 90 judges evaluated in various courts, he received the lowest rating on that question.
“Even if all of the accusations against Judge Jones are false, a judge should not be involved in anything that would lead to such accusations,” one lawyer wrote on the survey. “Judges should be held to a higher standard of conduct.”
Others simply called Jones an “embarrassment.”
In 2011, the last time the evaluation was conducted, 70 percent of the respondents said Jones should be retained.
Bryce Duckworth had the highest retention score of any Family Court judge in both the 2011 and 2013 surveys. This year, 93 percent of the responding lawyers said he should keep his job.
“Duckworth is smart, courteous and makes a decision that is fair and well-reasoned,” one respondent wrote. “What more can an attorney ask for?”
Pollock has been evaluated three times but never has received a retention score higher than 50 percent.
When Pollock was first evaluated in 2010, 47 percent said he should be retained. This year, only 40 percent said he should keep his seat.
“Obviously, nobody likes being the piñata of the day, but it’s not unexpected,” the judge said during a recent interview.
He said he came to the bench as an agent of change, and “agents of change are never popular.”
Pollock had little family law experience when he was elected in 2008.
He defeated incumbent Lisa Kent after pointing to her poor scores on previous judicial performance surveys. He also described himself as an outsider and called Family Court “as dysfunctional as the families it serves.”
Pollock said he has made changes that have made him unpopular.
“I became elected and what did I do? I started enforcing the rules,” he said.
Pollock said he reduced the number of continuances in his courtroom and refused to let lawyers withdraw from cases on the eve of trial without the consent of their clients.
He said he also refused to grant motions asking him to reduce an attorney’s lien to judgment, commonly filed when an attorney claims a client has failed to pay.
“I tell them to go file a lawsuit against their client for breach of contract,” Pollock said.
The judge said his rulings have angered lawyers, and he thinks their feelings are reflected in his retention score.
Pollock noted that 63 percent of the lawyers rated him “adequate” or “more than adequate” on the survey’s substantive questions.
He received his worst scores, however, on specific questions that asked whether his rulings are appropriate and whether he properly applies the law and rules.
Of the lawyers who rated Pollock, 59 percent said he was “less than adequate” when it comes to making appropriate rulings, and 56 percent said he was “less than adequate” when it comes to applying the law, rules of procedure and rules of evidence.
Many of the written comments from attorneys who rated Pollock touch on the way he applies the law and court rules. The following are a sampling of the anonymous comments:
■ “Excellent judge who follows the law and rules of the court regardless of who the lawyers are before the court. Lawyers are held accountable to the law, and he could care less about winning a popularity contest. Being unpopular with lawyers may mean you are doing your job as a judge.”
■ “He does a good job of understanding the rules and law, and ends up generally getting it right. But he’s so tied up with the rules that he occasionally misses the obvious facts that should take him down a different path.”
■ “Judge Pollock, please quit looking for arcane laws that no one has used for 150 years.”
■ “Probably the worst judge. Makes up his own rules that are nonsense and a waste of time and money.”
■ “Judge Pollock is great with rules but does not have a grasp of the human relations necessary for Family Court.”
■ “Very frustrating and not in keeping with how virtually all of the other family division judges deal with certain issues.”
■ “Judge Pollock has frustrated many attorneys and ruffled many feathers. Judge Pollock clearly believes that the law, rules and procedures should be respected and followed and has received a lot of push-back from attorneys who would prefer to not be bothered.”
Pollock said, “Even the negative comments and positive comments are talking about the same things. It’s just whether they like me enforcing the rules or not.”
Pollock’s decision to challenge District Judge Susan Scann in 2010 prompted one lawyer to accuse him of using Family Court as a “steppingstone” to attain another judicial position. He lost that race and said he will seek re-election to his Family Court seat next year.
“I guess it’s for the voters to decide whether they want a judge who’s going to enforce rules or not,” Pollock said.
Nathan was elected in 2010 and was evaluated for the first time in 2011, when 59 percent of the responding lawyers said she should be retained. That score dropped to 48 percent this year.
The judge, accompanied by a court spokeswoman, discussed her survey results during a recent interview at a coffee shop. She said the decrease surprised her.
“I’m a very hardworking judge,” Nathan said. “I’m very committed to the community, litigants.”
After practicing family law for 17 years, Nathan said, she came to the bench with a commitment “to get litigants through the court process as quickly as possible so they could get on with their lives.”
Nathan said she administers the mediation program at UNLV’s Boyd Law School to help get cases settled quickly.
Nathan contrasted her retention score with her rating summary scores, which showed that 67 percent of the responding lawyers rated her “adequate” or “more than adequate” on the survey’s substantive questions.
Like Pollock, she received her worst scores on specific questions that asked whether her rulings are appropriate and whether she properly applies the law and court rules.
Of the lawyers who rated Nathan, 45 percent said she was “less than adequate” when it comes to making appropriate rulings, and 44 percent said she was “less than adequate” when it comes to applying the law, rules of procedure and rules of evidence.
Nathan said she operated a successful law firm before becoming a judge, and she plans to seek re-election next year.
“I’ve always been a very effective family law attorney,” she said. “That is how I kept my family law practice going for 17 years, and that’s how I got elected to the bench.”
Moss received her highest retention score in 2002, the first year she was evaluated, when 65 percent of respondents said she should be retained.
This year, 44 percent said she should keep her seat, up from 43 percent in 2011.
Regarding specific performance areas, she received her worst score on a question about punctuality.
When asked whether Moss is punctual in convening court, keeps business moving, and does an amount of work fair to taxpayers and to other judges, 58 percent of the respondents rated her “less than adequate.” She received the same “less than adequate” rating on that question in 2011.
Pomrenze, who did not practice family law before becoming a judge, barely received the approval of lawyers who rated her in 2011. That year, 54 percent of the survey respondents recommended her for retention, but that score dropped to 47 percent this year.
Lawyers who rated specific performance areas gave Pomrenze her lowest rating on a question about courtesy. She was described as “less than adequate” in that area by 55 percent of the respondents.
“I was shocked with the lack of courtesy and fairness that Judge Pomrenze displayed in dealing with the attorneys, parties, and issues in her courtroom,” one lawyer wrote.
Another simply stated, “Rudest woman alive.”
Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at email@example.com or 702-384-8710. Follow @CarriGeer on Twitter.