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Judges playing musical chairs could leave taxpayers, voters standing

It’s not unusual for judges to run midterm for a higher court, guaranteeing that even if they lose, they still have a black robe and a steady paycheck.

Personally, I think it’s chicken poop that politicians run midterm because it gives them an unfair fundraising advantage over their opponents. They can shake down donors who know they’re going to be dealing with this candidate one way or another. But the law allows it, and it’s a system that’s not going to change, so enough of my complaining.

But Family Court Judge Sandra Pomrenze did something unusual Jan. 7. She filed to run for another newly created department in the same court. So what’s with that?

At first, I thought she was just trying to snag a $30,000-a-year raise, which seemed mercenary. She makes $130,000 a year now in Department D. If she wins in Department P, she can earn $160,000. (In Nevada, elected officials don’t get raises until after their next election.)

However, the $30,000 she gets for the heavy lifting she does on the Nevada Library Commission takes care of the pay inequity. So it’s not the money, honey.

It’s about convenience and facing the voters less frequently.

The ramification of her action, however, is that if she wins, her old seat isn’t filled by voters, but by Gov. Jim Gibbons.

This isn’t easy to follow, but there are six Family Court judges in Clark County who run in what they call “off years.” The Legislature wants all the District Court judges to be on the same election cycle, so the six Family Court judges elected four years ago will be running in 2010 for four-year terms before they land on the same election cycle as the majority of judges.

Pomrenze is running for a new seat because she believes there are political advantages. When she’s one of six running in an off year, Pomrenze said, “You’re alone out there, and it’s tough to raise money. And potentially you’re a greater target.”

By running now, she’s guaranteed a judgeship either way. In two years, the risk is greater.

Her only opponent, longtime Las Vegas attorney Jack Howard, sees it differently, saying, “I believe it’s manipulating the system.” And it will be part of his campaign against her because “it’s kind of contrary to judicial ethics.”

Howard said there’s a need for an opinion whether what the judge is doing is ethical.

“I’m disturbed he’d take the low road and try to question my ethics, especially when there are no ethical rules I violated,” said Pomrenze, 58, a Republican.

Howard, 60, is a Democrat. Judicial races are nonpartisan. He tried to persuade Pomrenze to withdraw from the race.

“He wanted me to walk from a race so he could walk in,” the furious judge said. “I’m disappointed I’m already getting attacked and the ink isn’t dry on the filing papers.”

A byproduct of Pomrenze’s decision is that, if she wins, her old seat will be filled not by voters, but by a Republican governor following a merit-selection process.

The Legislature created five new Family Court judgeships in Clark County because of the heavy caseload. Since the process for a gubernatorial appointment takes about three months, Pomrenze’s decision to make the change for her convenience does affect the public, because her seat will be vacant for that time.

What if all six Family Court judges elected in 2004 had decided to do this? At least one or two considered it, but she’s the only one who did it.

Family Court Judge Stefany Miley is running for District Court midterm, and, if she wins, her old seat will also be filled by a gubernatorial appointee, another three months in which a judge isn’t available to do the job she was first elected to do because she wanted to move up.

Family Court judges are the ones you are most likely to meet. They’re dealing with divorce, alimony and child support. They break our hearts and decide our finances. During her four years on the bench, Pomrenze built a reputation as a solid judge. Even Howard has nothing bad to say about her job performance.

Finishing what you start should mean something and should outweigh political calculations about what’s the best move to guarantee judges have jobs.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275.

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