Nevada judicial reform group in last-minute vote push

With residents polling against the measure and time running out, Irwin Molasky of Nevadans for Qualified Judges said Thursday it is crucial voters approve a November ballot question that seeks to change how people become judges in Nevada.

"We have to get our act together," said Molasky, vice chairman of the group and one of the city’s most important developers — his company built many landmark projects in Las Vegas — and a philanthropist who helped found Nathan Adelson Hospice.

Led by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, other prominent members include retired Nevada Supreme Court Justice Bill Maupin and longtime state Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno.

Molasky said he realizes the public is resistant to give up its vote, but he maintains the proposed merit selection system gives the public more control in weeding out inadequate judges.

While attorneys and other organizations advocate reform, the public in polls conducted by the Las Vegas Review-Journal/8 News Now has consistently opposed Question 1.

In a merit selection system, Molasky said, "candidates are vetted by a committee of attorneys, business people and academia and then they give the governor eight or 10 names and the governor appoints one."

After two years, they stand for retention election. That the election is held relatively soon after the appointment is made — two years rather than the current six-year term — is the key point proponents of merit selection want the public to understand.

Prior to the election, the results of an evaluation of the judges’ performance during their first two years would be made public, meaning voters would have time to do their own evaluation.

Currently, Molasky said, the overwhelming majority of voters have no idea how qualified judicial candidates are. He likened the process to people voting for who has the best campaign sign.

As it stands now, anyone can run, Molasky said. "It’s just a popularity contest."

He said judges in two-thirds of the states gain office through some form of merit selection.

"Arizona has had it for years," he said. "Nevada is way behind. This is our one chance opportunity.”

Recent judicial history shows the need to change the system, Molasky said.

He wouldn’t mention names, like that of Elizabeth Halverson, who was removed from the bench after a series of scandals, but cited a series of Los Angeles Times articles that "embarrassed" Nevada jurists.

"They just took us to task," Molasky said.

The problem with keeping the status quo is one of appearances, both literally and figuratively, he said.

According to researchers studying the influence of campaign contributions in the judiciary, Justice Kris Pickering raised $1.3 million for her election in 2008. While half of that came from Pickering’s pocket, six other candidates for two seats on the seven-member high court collected more than $3 million.

All seven justices on the state’s high court support Question 1.

Nevada has had several multimillion-dollar spending elections regarding the judiciary.

"It’s beneath the dignity of a judge to ask for campaign contributions," Molasky said. "How would you feel if you went to court and you didn’t contribute to the judge but your opponent did?"

Molasky’s company built Sunrise Hospital, the Boulevard Mall, Regency Towers high-rise condominiums and the 17-story Bank of America Plaza in downtown Las Vegas.

He said the public should be "uncomfortable" with the current system because of perception alone, let alone actual scandals.

Greg Ferraro, a member of the group’s steering committee, said Nevadans for Qualified Judges will "be aggressive" in getting out the message, through meeting with media and public outreach efforts including advertising.

Ferraro focused on the urgency his group sees as the issue.

Quoting from O’Connor, he said, "Let’s be clear about one thing — a crisis of confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary is real and growing. Left unaddressed, the perception that justice is for sale will undermine the rule of law that courts are supposed to uphold."

Contact reporter Doug McMurdo at dmcmudo@review or 702-224-5512

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