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Public defender challenging North Las Vegas justice of the peace

Updated September 30, 2020 - 8:47 pm

A deputy public defender who found herself at the center of police and media attention during a Black Lives Matter protest is challenging a longtime judge in North Las Vegas Justice Court.

Belinda Harris was working as a legal observer in June when she was detained by police on the Strip. Incumbent Chris Lee, who has served on the bench for 12 years, was critical of Harris’ actions while she campaigned for public office.

“It’s no time to be an activist at this point,” Lee said. “If there are any questions about whether my opponent is an activist or will be an activist on the bench, you can certainly Google her name.… It’s important that you have someone with experience to make sure our community is safe.”

Harris’ encounter with police was scrutinized after authorities referred to her claim that she was thrown to the ground “unfounded.”

Harris was one of 15 legal observers who walked the Strip among hundreds of others peacefully demonstrating against police brutality.

“I’ve never been a witness to such civil unrest,” Harris told the Review-Journal. “So to see the dialogue and the interactions and different things, it has all been extremely enlightening.”

Lee was first elected in 2008 and ran unopposed six years later. He also serves as a captain in the U.S. Air Force Reserves JAG Corps. Before taking the bench, he worked as a Clark County prosecutor.

In a recent Review-Journal judicial survey, Lee earned a 76 percent retention rating, earning high marks for fairness and efficiency.

Harris, born and raised in North Las Vegas, emphasized her campaign slogan “bold, tough, honest” and called herself “the most authentic candidate in this race.”

Lee touted his work on the bench during the housing crises of the late aughts in Southern Nevada.

“Right now it’s so important that someone with experience stay on this job,” he said. “We’re heading for difficult times, and it’s not time for on-the-job training.”

Lee said he’s worked with defense attorneys and prosecutors to help reduce delays in criminal cases, adding that he would aim toward improving access to the court system, in both criminal and civil cases, particularly for low-income people.

Harris pointed to flaws in North Las Vegas Justice Court, where she said defendants sit in custody for days before seeing a judge. She said she would work to speed up detention hearings and initial appearances in criminal cases.

“People who are in custody should not be languishing,” Harris said. “This is why we have a backlog of cases.… People are waiting too long in custody and cases are not being reviewed and the law is not being applied. So the first thing I would like to do is make sure the law is followed in North Las Vegas Justice Court.”

Contact David Ferrara at dferrara@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039. Follow @randompoker on Twitter.

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