Judicial candidates should be judged on their merits, not politics

Two Hispanic activists are furious because attorney Vincent Ochoa wasn’t chosen by the Clark County Commission to fill one of two Las Vegas justice of the peace seats. They made threats of political retaliation from the minority community at Tuesday’s commission meeting.

The all-Democratic commission, by a 4-3 vote, selected Melanie Tobiasson and Joseph Sciscento to fill unexpired terms. They were among six candidates who had been culled from 27 applicants by the Judicial Selection Committee. But a merit selection panel doesn’t guarantee political clout becomes irrelevant.

When Commissioner Steve Sisolak recommended Tobiasson and Sciscento, it seemed to surprise Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who was supporting Ochoa, the only Hispanic applicant to a court with no Hispanic judges.

In the final vote, Sisolak’s recommendations were supported by Tom Collins, Susan Brager and Larry Brown. Voting against the two new judges: Giunchigliani, Rory Reid and Lawrence Weekly.

Tobiasson is a Republican, a member of a longtime, politically active Nevada family. She also has performed the job for 10 years as a pro tem justice.

Sciscento, a Democrat, has practiced in Justice Court for many years, has union support and support from politically active attorneys.

Giunchigliani said she believed Ochoa was the best qualified.

"In this day and age of diversity, we have an opportunity to do something to diversify the court," she said, noting Nevada Supreme Court Justice Jim Hardesty "thought this guy is terrific."

Brager bristled at Giunchigliani’s inference that diversity didn’t seem to matter to the other commissioners.

"I believe in voting my conscience and what I believe is right for the community," Brager said. "I have grandchildren who are Hispanic, so it’s nothing about that."

During public comment, Ray Pedraza, head of the Clark County Democratic Hispanic Caucus, and Jose Solorio, the first Hispanic member of the Clark County School Board, threatened political retaliation from the minority community. (However, threatening and following through are not one and the same.)

Pedraza said he was disappointed because he’s been a loyal Democrat "and I feel that there was a little betrayal here." He promised he would go to the Asian and black communities and said there could be "repercussions or consequences" over the failure to pick Ochoa, who has practiced law in Nevada since 1979.

With a qualified Hispanic in the mix, yet rejected, Solorio said, "What I see today is if you lobby right, if you’re from the right family, then you can get an appointment.

"I know a lot of you are going to have some close races," Solorio said. "But to me, it’s a sad day when four Democrats supported a Republican over the best qualified candidate in the field."

Judicial races are officially nonpartisan, but have become more partisan in recent years. (Ochoa was a Democrat except for one month this year, when he registered as a Republican while being considered for an appointment to state court by Gov. Jim Gibbons.)

I’ve asked trusted legal sources whether Ochoa was the best for the job and there is no consensus. Some say he’s mediocre. Others say he’d make an excellent judge.

Senior District Judge Stewart Bell knows all six candidates, the three previously mentioned as well as Lynn Avants, James Gubler and Lynn Robinson.

"Every one of the six was qualified and would do a good job," Bell said. "They’re all quality people who would work hard, know the law, and would show up and be courteous."

Ochoa has run for judicial jobs and also has sought judicial appointments, never finishing at the top. So has Sciscento, until now.

Ochoa is mixed about what’s the best system to choose judges: a merit selection panel that does in depth interviews before the process turns political or elections, which are purely political.

"The two selection processes I was involved in this year establish that a very few individuals that are politically connected can get their candidate into office," Ochoa wrote in an e-mail. His preference is a hybrid solution: A selection committee that would consider the candidate’s qualifications, then two finalists would be voted upon by the public.

But that’s never going to happen. Besides, politics wouldn’t be eliminated from that system either.

Ochoa will likely try again, and maybe next time will be his time.

But Hispanic activists threatening Democratic county commissioners doesn’t help his cause.

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

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