When six Nevada Supreme Court justices overturned a decision made by Justice Nancy Saitta when she was a District Court judge, it had to create tension in the hallowed hallways of justice. Especially because the message sent was that Saitta didn’t know the law and abused her power. It’s not the kind of hand slapping from her peers any judge wants to receive.
Justice Michael Douglas drew the short straw. While all the justices signed the order overturning Saitta, he was the one who actually wrote it.
The opinion issued Dec. 27 portrayed Saitta as someone who didn’t know the law about gag orders and who abused her authority in sealing a divorce case.
Only Saitta can explain why she sealed the entire divorce case of former Family Court Judge Robert Lueck and slapped a gag order on everyone involved in the summer of 2006. At the time, Lueck was running for a Family Court judgeship.
Saitta’s public explanations for her actions are blatantly inconsistent. First, she said she did it to prevent negative campaigning, which is not her job. “One of the worst things that can be said about campaigning is that we use things against one another,” Saitta said. “This is a situation where I don’t want to see this thing being used in the campaign for anybody’s sake.”
Later, she said she did it to protect his young daughter.
Lueck had been defeated in 2004 after he served one term and was trying to return to the bench, which offered paycheck security to a man with financial difficulties, including a previous bankruptcy. He used $50,000 of his savings to campaign for the $138,000 job.
Lueck and Jane Johanson divorced in December 1999, and he was ordered to pay $750 a month in child support payments. But when he lost to Sandra Pomrenze in 2004, he fell behind in those payments, placing him among the crowded ranks of deadbeat dads.
Lueck asked for a reduction in his child support payments. Saitta did that and reduced the amount he owed and hadn’t paid. In another hearing, Lueck asked for some clerical changes in Saitta’s prior order and in court said he didn’t want his unpaid child support to be used against him in his campaign.
From the bench, Saitta sealed the entire case and issued a gag order preventing Lueck, his ex-wife and their respective attorneys from discussing the case or disclosing any documents.
Under the law, the opinion said, Saitta abused her discretion by sealing the entire case, and she didn’t meet the standard for ordering a gag order and denying Johanson her First Amendment right to free speech. Saitta’s prior restraint on free speech was too broad to pass constitutional muster. “The gag order violates both the United States and Nevada Constitutions,” Douglas wrote.
The law allows only the sealing of certain documents in a divorce case, only if one of the parties makes a written request asking for the sealing, and only after the judge makes legal findings. None of that took place.
The unpaid child support became public in October 2006, the month before the election, when Johanson’s attorney Bruce Shapiro petitioned the court to lift the gag order. That was a public document and was reported in the Review-Journal. In November, Lueck lost to William Potter, who had made an issue of Lueck’s ugly divorce.
Why should any candidate, but especially a former Family Court judge, be able to hide from the voters that he’s behind in child support payments? The old adage, if you make the law, don’t break the law, is in play here. If you’re a judge penalizing others for failing to pay child support, you better be current with yours.
The gag order is lifted, yet Johanson’s attorney Shapiro declines to make any comment. Saitta isn’t talking about it either.
Douglas wrote in a footnote that he rejected as without merit Lueck’s ex-wife’s claim that Saitta was giving Lueck special treatment because he was a former judge.
I’m not sure I agree. Saitta was running for the Supreme Court in 2006, the same time Lueck was running for Family Court.
Her likely motivation was either cronyism or empathy, take your pick.
Even her peers say what she did was wrong.
Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275.JANE ANN MORRISONMORE COLUMNS