Judicial-selection plan strips voters of power, critic says

CARSON CITY — Sen. Mark Amodei complained Monday that a proposed constitutional amendment would take the power to seat judges away from the people and give it to political "insiders."

During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Amodei opposed the idea of a five-member judicial selection commission naming three finalists for each judicial vacancy and forwarding the names to the governor, who would pick the new judges.

Under the proposed amendment outlined in Senate Joint Resolution 2, three commission members would be lawyers. Six of the past eight Nevada governors have been lawyers.

"This tastes like and feels like inside ball," said Amodei, R-Carson City, a lawyer himself. "The process is heavily weighted by members of the bar.

"It is a bunch of lawyers who are going to have the choice."

Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, argued that contested judicial elections force candidates to seek contributions from lawyers and businesses with cases before the court. He noted a national survey that found 76 percent of citizens think contributors to judicial campaigns have influence over the judges they supported.

Raggio quoted an Ohio judge who said he felt "like a hooker down by the bus station" in asking for political contributions.

"Do you have any polling data on how, because of their cynicism, voters don’t want to vote on judges?" Amodei asked in response.

Raggio did not.

Nevada voters have twice rejected proposals to appoint judges instead of electing them.

The committee did not immediately vote on the resolution, which was approved by the Legislature in 2007 but needs approval again this year before it can be placed before voters in 2010.

Four of the seven committee members supported the proposal in 2007, and the newest member, Sen. Allison Copening, D-Las Vegas, said she supports it.

Under the proposal, judges appointed by the governor who want another term must win at least 55 percent of the vote in an uncontested retention election.

Amodei said judges might still be forced to raise money to win such elections, and someone angry with a judge in a small city such as Carson City could conceivably drum up enough opposition to defeat the judge.

Raggio, the bill’s sponsor, and Chief Supreme Court Justice Jim Hardesty said appointing judges means they don’t have to solicit campaign contributions or run time-consuming campaigns, often while continuing their full-time jobs on the bench.

"When I ran for justice, I had to raise over $700,000," said Hardesty, a Washoe County district judge at the time. "This takes a toll on a judge. You don’t get enough sleep."

Raggio, a longtime lawyer, said he has seen judges sitting in lobbies of legal firms waiting to ask for contributions.

"I think it is degrading," he said.

Nevada Families Vice Chairwoman Lynn Chapman said the unsaid implication behind the resolution was that citizens do not have the knowledge to pick good candidates.

"I am not stupid," she said. "I can figure out where to go to find out about a judge."

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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