Survey ratings often reflect troubles

Being perceived by other attorneys as a judge worth keeping increases a judge’s chances of running unopposed for re-election but doesn’t guarantee it.

Neither does poor performance, in the eyes of fellow lawyers, guarantee someone will step forward as a candidate for the same seat on the bench.

The conclusions can be drawn by comparing the list of announced candidates for local judicial offices and the Nevada Supreme Court with the results of the 2008 Judicial Performance Evaluation.

Although judicial candidates this year had to file before survey results were known, the scores would have predicted a contested campaign for many of those who are going to get one.

The seat held by embattled District Judge Elizabeth Halverson drew two opponents. Besides her well-publicized troubles with the Judicial Discipline Commission, Halverson was recommended for retention by only 8 percent of the 303 lawyers who rated her.

Lawyers were asked to rate judges on 12 job-related criteria, and a majority rated her less than adequate on every question.

She faces challenges from Jason Landess, an experienced Las Vegas attorney, and Stefany Miley, a judge who has two years left to go on her six-year Family Court term and can keep that job if she fails to win the seat occupied by Halverson.

Miley’s own scores on the survey were not stellar; 55 percent of the lawyers thought she should keep her job, and some 40 percent ranked her less than adequate on several questions about judicial competence, such as properly applying law, rules of procedure and rules of evidence.

If all three candidates remain on the ballot, a primary election on Aug. 12 will select two for the Nov. 4 general election.

District Judge Jessie Walsh was recommended for retention by only 41 percent of the lawyers rating her, and a majority called her less than adequate on questions about appropriate rulings, applying the law, explaining decisions, and knowing and weighing evidence before making them.

She has three opponents, including William Kephart, an experienced prosecutor, and Ian Christopherson, who practices criminal law.

A third candidate, lawyer David J. Rivers, was catapulted to public attention by an unfriendly story in a small local newspaper, which became the subject of a controversial defamation ruling by a district judge, one of Walsh’s colleagues.

Michelle Leavitt, on the bench for 10 years, had a retention recommendation by only 56 percent of those who rated her. She was challenged by Kurt Harris, a Henderson attorney.

Donald M. Mosley, who had one of the lower retention ratings among district judges at 56 percent, is running for re-election against two opponents.

Mosley, considered a law-and-order judge, was criticized most often on the questions of inappropriate rulings, professional conduct and personal bias, but a simple majority rated him positively even on those questions.

One opponent, Laurie Diefenbach, is a deputy public defender with experience in private practice, including civil, criminal, family and bankruptcy cases.

The other, Chris Davis, is a deputy city attorney in North Las Vegas with a background including commercial litigation, civil rights law and clerking in the U.S. District Court for Nevada and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Appointed last fall to serve a little more than a year of an unexpired term, District Judge Elissa Cadish was ranked more than adequate by a majority of attorneys on every job-related question, and 82 percent recommended she be re-elected, but she still drew an opponent.

She will face Benjamin Boone Childs Sr., a general-practice lawyer.

District Judge Susan Johnson was rated almost as highly on individual questions and recommended for retention by 80 percent of attorneys, but she drew an opponent, Donn Ianuzi.

Ianuzi is a former deputy district attorney, deputy attorney general and deputy public defender, now in private practice.

Similarly, Judge Michael Villani, with high scores on most questions and an 81 percent retention rating, is running for re-election against Bruce L. Gale, an attorney in general practice.

NEVADA SUPREME COURT

Only one state Supreme Court seat is contested this year: Justice Mark Gibbons, who had a retention recommendation of 86 percent, faces a challenge from Las Vegas lawyer Thomas Frank Christensen.

Christensen’s practice has concentrated on personal injury, product liability, wrongful death and insurance bad faith; he has been a settlement judge and arbitrator.

Another justice’s seat is up for election, but the current occupant, Justice Bill Maupin, is retiring.

FAMILY COURT

In Family Court, which specializes in divorces and child custody, Judge Nicholas Anthony Del Vecchio was recommended for retention by only 41 percent of the 169 lawyers who rated him.

Del Vecchio had the misfortune to be accused of judicial misconduct, much of it sexual, which broke into headlines during the weeks lawyers were rating judges.

Yet most of his worst scores were not about personal conduct but on questions relating to judicial competence, such as weighing evidence carefully and properly applying the law.

He will have three opponents in his re-election campaign: Ellen J. Bezian, Cynthia N. Giuliani and Vincent Ochoa.

Bezian describes herself as primarily a family law practitioner, but she is best-known for her defense and appeal work on behalf of Jessica Williams.

Williams was sentenced to a long prison term because she had a nonimpairing trace of marijuana in her bloodstream when she fell asleep while driving, and struck and killed six teenagers picking up trash as a court-ordered community service.

Ochoa practices family law and has been a hearing master for the Family Court’s juvenile and truancy sections.

He has done workers’ compensation and personal injury work.

Giuliani has 10 years family law experience in New York and Nevada and has lived in Las Vegas 13 years.

Judge Lisa M. Kent fared even poorer in the survey, with only 36 percent of attorneys recommending she be re-elected.

Kent drew four opponents, including the similarly named Jamie Kent, Michele “Shell” Mercer, Kenneth E. Pollock and Morrisa Schechtman.

Mercer is a family lawyer who has practiced in Las Vegas about a decade.

Pollock has 16 years of experience including family law and service as an alternate municipal judge.

Schechtman has practiced family law in Las Vegas for 17 years and has served pro tem as a Family Court commissioner for discovery, guardianship and domestic violence.

Jamie Kent did not return calls requesting information.

Judge Cheryl B. Moss was recommended for retention by a bare majority of those rating her, 52 percent.

But unlike some others with modest scores, Moss is a love-her-or-hate-her judge whom many lawyers rate more than adequate regarding the same traits on which many others rate her less than adequate.

She faces one challenger, Greta G. Muirhead, a family law practicioner who has served as an alternate hearing master in such Family Court matters as child support, paternity, guardianship and temporary protective orders.

Cynthia Dianne Steel, who has served on the Family Court since 1998 and unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the state Supreme Court in 2006, drew a 60 percent retention recommendation.

She also drew one opponent, Amy M. Mastin, who prosecuted civil child abuse cases for the Clark County district attorney before establishing her own family law practice.

Judge Sandra L. Pomrenze, 58, was recommended for retention by 62 percent of the lawyers who rated her.

She is not running for re-election; her current seat is not up for re-election until 2010.

Instead, she is running for a newly created seat on the same court.

If she wins, she will have six more years before facing re-election, and Gov. Jim Gibbons will get to appoint a judge to fill the seat she is vacating. If she fails to win the new seat, she can keep her present one.

Her challenger, Jack Howard, has vowed to make her can’t-lose maneuver a campaign issue.

Howard is a veteran Las Vegas attorney with concentrations in family, criminal and civil law.

Judge Jennifer L. Elliott had a retention rating of 73 percent, the fifth-highest score on the 13-member court, but still drew an opponent.

Elliott, now 50, was not only a lawyer but a licensed marriage and family therapist before her election in 2002.

Her opponent, Dawn Throne, 38, is a Henderson lawyer who ran in a crowded 2006 race for a different, newly created Family Court seat.

The victor of that race, William Potter, has to run for re-election this year but is unopposed.

RUNNING UNOPPOSED

Several judges will run unopposed.

They include District Court judges Valerie Adair, 80 percent recommendation for retention; David Barker, 92 percent; James M. Bixler, 81 percent; Kenneth Cory, 74 percent; Mark R. Denton, 88 percent; Allen Earl, 90 percent; Jackie Glass, 62 percent; Elizabeth Gonzalez, 82 percent; Kathy A. Hardcastle, 54 percent; Douglas W. Herndon, 88 percent; Jennifer Togliatti, 85 percent; Valorie Vega, 70 percent; David Wall, 88 percent; and Timothy Williams, 83 percent.

Family Court incumbents running unopposed are judges William Potter, 80 percent; and T. Arthur Ritchie Jr., 88 percent. Justices of the Peace Stephen George of Henderson Township, 91 percent, and Melissa Saragosa of Las Vegas Township, 78 percent, will run unopposed also.

Contact A.D. Hopkins at ahopkins @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0270.

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