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Municipal judge races: Six vie for vacant seat, two incumbents face familiar challengers

In an unusual twist, a Las Vegas municipal judge’s race with an incumbent has as many contenders as one in which a seat is vacant.

It’s hardly a surprise that six candidates would vie for the seat left open by retiring Chief Judge Betsy Kolkoski in Department 2.

But it’s out-of-the-norm to have five candidates looking to unseat incumbent Judge George Assad. In Department 3, Assad appears vulnerable after attorneys hammered him in a survey last year, and with his son being arrested for the high-profile robbery at the Bellagio, according to one candidate.

The more typical scenario can be seen in Department 5, where 14-year incumbent Cedric Kerns faces one challenger.

Municipal judges serve six-year terms, preside over misdemeanor cases and are paid $149,356 a year. The races are nonpartisan.

Early voting started Saturday for the April 5 primary. The general election is June 7.

The three Municipal Court seats on the Las Vegas ballot include:

Department 5

This two-man matchup will be decided in the primary. It pits Kerns, a Republican, against Bruce Gale, a Democrat who is making his fifth bid for a local judgeship.

Kerns, 45, said his record on the bench speaks for itself.

He received a favorable rating from attorneys in last year’s Judging the Judges survey conducted by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

“I love my job, and I want to keep doing it,” Kerns said.

Kerns said he will continue working to reduce recidivism rates, partly through an intervention program he helped establish that targets 18- to 24-year-old offenders who struggle with substance abuse.

A cornerstone is dealing with the co-dependent family members who reinforce the person’s addiction, Kerns said. So far, 34 young offenders are active in the program, and four have dropped out.

Kerns questioned Gale’s multiple attempts at judgeships, as well as his Municipal Court experience.

“He seems like a nice guy,” Kerns said. “I’m just not sure whether he belongs on the municipal bench.”

Gale, 56, has practiced law for 23 years, including business litigation, probate, personal injury, family law and criminal defense.

Gale blamed his election defeats largely on his unwillingness to accept campaign donations from attorneys and others who might later try to influence his decisions on the bench.

“I don’t want to be beholden to anyone,” Gale said.

Without a war chest, he couldn’t pump up his name recognition, he added.

Gale contends that “juice instead of justice” was at play in 2006 when Kerns let local businessman Ron Montoya out of jail faster than normal after he was arrested for suspicion of drunken driving.

In news stories, Kerns denied giving Montoya special treatment.

Gale said he will follow all guidelines, laws and codes and treat everyone equally.

“I have the integrity and work ethic to be a judge,” Gale said. “I’m going to be fair to everyone in front of me.”

Department 3

Assad, a nine-year incumbent, faces five opponents: Heidi Almase, Chris Davis, Dayvid Figler, Anthony Goldstein and Nicholas Perrino.

Assad and Davis didn’t return phone calls from the Review-Journal.

The City Council appointed Assad to the bench in 2002, making him the city’s first municipal judge of Middle Eastern descent.

He ran unopposed in 2005, winning a six-year term.

Assad’s son, Anthony Carleo, has been arrested and charged with robbing the Bellagio of $1.5 million in gambling chips.

Almase said Carleo’s high-profile arrest is a big reason so many candidates jumped into the race, but argues that it’s a side issue.

Almase said she was motivated by Assad’s low rating in the Review-Journal survey in which two-thirds of responding attorneys ranked him as less than adequate.

Almase, 43, a Democrat, has been an attorney since 2001. She was a prosecutor for five years before she and her husband launched a criminal defense firm in 2008.

She works as a pro tem justice of the peace and as an alternate municipal judge in Henderson. She noted that she dropped out high school and later worked herself through college.

“I’d like to think I bring a good work ethic to the bench,” Almase said.

Figler, 43, has practiced law for almost two decades. In 2003, he was appointed as a temporary municipal judge for 10 months. Since then, he has worked as an alternate municipal judge.

Figler said he volunteers for specialty courts, including for the homeless and those with mental health problems. He would push to create a court for veterans, especially those who are homeless, he said.

“How can we get them out of this cycle?” Figler said. “All we need is a champion on the bench.”

Goldstein, 36, who said he is an independent , has practiced law for 10 years. He has handled 500 felony cases, including murders, and has worked part time as a Las Vegas justice of the peace.

“I know the ins and outs of criminal law in Las Vegas,” Goldstein said.

His top goal is to appropriately punish those convicted of crimes while protecting victims of crimes.

As a judge, he also would push to develop a system for filing electronically in Municipal Court to increase transparency and public access to records.

Perrino, 70, a Democrat, has been an attorney since 1969. He has spent most of his time in private practice, though he worked two years as a prosecutor and a year as a magistrate.

He also has been an alternate municipal judge for three years.

Perrino estimates he has been involved in 100 jury trials, ranging from litigation to death penalty cases. Being a prosecutor, defense attorney and judge has made him well-rounded and even-handed, he said.

“Police should be tough on crime; prosecutors should be tough on crime,” Perrino said. “But judges should be in the middle.”

Department 2

This race features a couple of familiar names.

The candidates are Colby Beck, Sonny Bonaventure, Robert Kurth, George Trachtman, Marco Angioni and Susan Roger, wife of District Attorney David Roger.

Angioni and Roger didn’t return phone calls from the Review-Journal.

Bonaventure, 31, a Democrat, has spent six of his seven years as an attorney in the public defender’s office.

He said he might look for guidance from his father, Joseph, a retired District Court judge, and his brother, Joe, a Las Vegas justice of the peace. But he is running on his own resume and not their coattails, he said.

His top priority is to protect the community while handling caseloads as efficiently as possible, he said. He will look to quicken trials, which is vital in such a high-volume court.

“I have the right temperament for running this court,” Bonaventure said. “I have the ability to see both sides of the story.”

Robert Kurth, 43, a Republican, has been in practice since 1992, handling everything from criminal defense to family and business law.

Kurth has worked as an arbitrator, an alternate child support hearing master and a small claims court referee.

He talked of expediting the legal process and avoiding needless delays. A native of Las Vegas, Kurth said he wants to make the area a safer place to live.

“We need a judge that’s going to be tough on crime, protect our families, enforce the Constitution and not try to legislate from the bench,” Kurth said.

Beck, 39, a Democrat, has been an attorney since 1996. His experience is mostly in litigation, though he was a prosecutor for two years in Chicago.

He also has worked as an alternate municipal judge for several years.

Most people’s encounters with the legal system are in municipal and justice courts, Beck said. “It’s important that their cases are handled as expeditiously as possible, so they’re not languishing in the system.”

He would seek to create a specialty court to intercede with young gang members who have committed minor crimes, he said, with the aim of preventing them escalating to violent crimes.

Trachtman, 41, a Democrat, has practiced law for 17 years, including criminal, personal injuries and traffic. And he has been an alternate municipal judge since 2007.

Trachtman said he would like to assist in programs to help veterans who wind up in the system because they have no place else to go.

He also would like to change some misdemeanor penalties.

For instance, he disagrees with bench warrants being issued as soon as a person misses the deadline for paying a fine.

He would try to get a week grace period added in case the deadline falls on a weekend, he said. That way, the person isn’t slapped unfairly with an added fine or, worse, gets arrested.

“I’m impartial, I’m fair, I listen to both sides,” Trachtman said.

Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland@reviewjournal.com or 702-455-4519.

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