Nevada voters directly elect state and local judges — judges who can affect our lives and liberties just as much as members of the other two branches of government.
But, unable to make grandiose promises to give us free stuff while cutting "almost everybody’s" taxes, judges are left to wage understated campaigns that don’t attract a lot of attention, leaving even an attentive voter to wonder whether it’s better to skip these races or just take a guess.
Into that void we offer the following recommendations. In many cases, these were close calls between well-qualified local attorneys and judges. Clark County voters will chose the occupants of 10 District Court seats on Nov. 4. Five of those seats are occupied by incumbents.
In Department 6, Judge Elissa Cadish has been on the bench for little more than a year, having been appointed to complete the term of the retired Joseph Bonaventure. Judge Cadish graduated magna cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania and received her law degree from the University of Virginia. She received an impressive 82 percent first-year retention rating in the Review-Journal’s "Judging the Judges" attorney survey.
Challenging Judge Cadish is Benjamin Boon Childs Sr., a local personal injury and divorce attorney.
On balance, electing judges is better than appointing them. But the interim appointment process did itself proud in advancing Judge Cadish. In her knowledge of the law, in her intellectual firepower and judicial demeanor, Elissa Cadish was a superlative appointment who voters can proudly retain.
In Department 7, District Judge Stewart Bell isn’t running for re-election, but his daughter, Linda Marie Bell, seeks to replace him. Ms. Bell clerked for Judge Sally Loehrer, served five years as a county public defender, and is currently an assistant federal public defender. Her opponent, Bob Spretnak, unsuccessfully challenged Assemblyman John Oceguera in a legislative race in 2004.
Mr. Spretnak, a civil litigator with a law degree from the University of Virginia, argues a court bench should not be "handed down" from parent to child, and that his opponent’s $130,000 war chest indicates she’s "the establishment choice." Those are all good points, and we hope the energetic Mr. Spretnak will be back. But Linda Bell’s 15 years of mixed civil, criminal and trial experience make her the better choice.
In Department 8, personal injury attorney Josh Kunis and Doug Smith, chief judge of the Las Vegas Justice Court, are vying to replace retiring Judge Lee Gates.
Judge Smith scored an acceptable 66 percent retention rating for his current seat on the most recent Review-Journal survey. He has presided over more than 70 felony jury trials. Mr. Kunis has limited exposure to criminal law.
Judge Doug Smith’s experience and demeanor make him the better choice.
In Department 10, District Judge Jessie Walsh should not be on the bench. Over the years, the percentage of local attorneys polled who say she is sufficiently competent and even-handed to be retained has "improved" from 31 to 36 to 41 percent. Fortunately, the challenger, Chief Deputy District Attorney William Kephart, offers unrivaled experience in criminal law. He’s prosecuted 124 jury trials, losing only three. Send in Bill Kephart to clean up Department 10.
In Department 12, insurance defense attorney Kurt Harris is challenging incumbent Michelle Leavitt, whose retention rating has slipped to an uninspiring 56 percent. But Mr. Harris has little experience in criminal law. We hope the impressive Mr. Harris will be back, but incumbent Michelle Leavitt is the better choice here.
In Department 14, Chris Davis, a deputy city attorney for North Las Vegas, where he handles civil rights cases, is challenging long-time incumbent Judge Donald Mosley, who this year scored an unimpressive 56 percent retention rating.
But Mr. Davis has spent eight of his 12 years in the profession as a clerk. His practice, by his own admission, has been primarily a "motion practice." Meantime, Judge Mosley, who at age 61 says he’s seeking his last term, receives praise from knowledgeable prosecutors for his brisk handling of his criminal calendar. Donald Mosley has the experience, the common sense and the temperament to merit that final term.
In Department 17, local attorney Bruce Gale, currently a judge pro tem in the court’s short-trial program, is challenging Judge Michael Villani, who was appointed when Judge Michael Cherry was elevated to the Nevada Supreme Court.
Judge Villani, who scored an impressive 81 percent retention rating in the "Judging the Judges" survey, is a fan of open courtrooms who has served on both the Bar Association’s disciplinary and dispute resolution boards. He is a jurist of unusual character and competence — a walking testimonial to the current effectiveness of the state’s interim appointment process. Voters can enthusiastically retain Michael Villani in Department 17.
In Department 22, challenger Donn Ianuzi, a criminal defense attorney who once served as a deputy district attorney in Nye County, is not running an energetic campaign against incumbent Susan Johnson, though he says, "If lightning were to strike and I were to be a judge it would be interesting."
Judge Johnson, a freshman, drew a handsome 80 percent retention rating. Retaining Judge Susan Johnson is an easy choice in Department 22.
In Department 23, troubled one-term Judge Elizabeth Halverson failed to survive this summer’s primary. Family Court Judge Stefany Miley now seeks to advance to this seat. Her opponent is long-time local attorney Jason Landess, a 30-year expert at complex civil litigation with law review honors from Loyola Law School who tried dozens of criminal cases while an assistant district attorney in Orange County, Calif.
In the Review-Journal’s 2008 judicial survey, only 55 percent of lawyers familiar with her performance in Family Court thought Judge Miley should keep her job. Though he’s had his troubles in the past — he once won more than $1 million playing blackjack, and proceeded to lose even more — Jason Landess, 62, is a man of impressive legal experience with no higher political ambitions … and the better choice for Department 23.
Voters can choose between two well-qualified candidates in Department 25. Susan Scann, partner in a large local law firm, is a six-year member of the ethics committee of the State Bar. She has practiced law for 31 years and served as a judge pro tem for the city of Las Vegas for 27 years.
Her opponent, Kathleen Delaney, worked six years as an assistant counsel to The Mirage casino-hotel and three years as vice president and general counsel for Treasure Island Corp. She is now a state senior deputy attorney general for consumer protection. Her decision not to solicit wads of cash from fellow members of the bar may have left her underfunded, but her wide-ranging experience in civil, criminal and administrative matters — as well as her refreshing energy and enthusiasm — make Kathleen Delaney a superior candidate for the bench, and the better choice between two strong hopefuls for Department 25.