Judicial recommendations

Southern Nevadans face a summer primary on Aug. 12 — early voting has already begun.

Such off-season elections draw few voters. Among the few who turn out, fewer still cast ballots in judiciary races, where they often know little about the candidates.

Under those circumstances, it’s all too easy to "stick with the familiar name" — the incumbent — or end up making a choice based on who has the prettiest yard signs. But those would be particularly serious errors in the case of three bad judges running for re-election this year — and another judge seeking a premature promotion.

The special prosecutor for the Judicial Discipline Commission has accused Family Court Judge Nicholas Del Vecchio of sexual misconduct and abuse of power, including coercing a judicial assistant into having a sexual relationship with him.

The complaint alleges the relationship dates from before Mr. Del Vecchio was a judge, when the judicial assistant, the daughter of his ex-wife, was 14.

Judge Del Vecchio took nude photos of the girl when she was between the ages of 14 and 16 and had her perform oral sex on him, the 38-count complaint states. The document also accuses him of using slurs against black and Hispanic court staff.

Judge Del Vecchio has not been convicted of any crime. But these are serious complaints showing a long-standing pattern of behavior which does not bring credit on his office. His answers to these allegations have not been adequate, and he should not be sitting on the Family Court bench. Voters should not re-elect Nicholas Del Vecchio.

Fortunately, one candidate in this race stands head and shoulders above all others, in qualifications and relevant experience.

Vincent Ochoa is the son of a migrant worker father who settled down to work at the General Motors plant in Flint, Mich., and a mother who worked as a hospital housekeeper. He grew up in a predominantly black ghetto, but managed to earn an economics degree from Michigan State and his law degree from the University of Notre Dame. That’s impressive — and you can bet he didn’t do it on a polo scholarship.

Fluent in both English and Spanish, Mr. Ochoa served as a law clerk and has served both as a Nevada deputy attorney general and as an alternative municipal judge for the city of North Las Vegas. He has decades of local experience as a contract attorney for the juvenile court, has been married 35 years, has four children and three grandchildren.

Vincent Ochoa is the best candidate for Family Court Department K.

In Department 23 of the District Court, freshman Judge Elizabeth Halverson continues to draw her annual pay of $130,000 despite the fact she’s been suspended and barred from the courthouse for the past year by the state’s Judicial Discipline Commission, which after a hearing last July determined Judge Halverson’s conduct on the bench "poses a substantial threat of serious harm to the public" and also "to the administration of justice."

Witnesses at the hearing testified Judge Halverson created a hostile work environment for her staff and initiated improper contact with jurors in at least two criminal trials. The order of suspension said, "There was more than adequate proof" that Halverson, who is morbidly obese and has other health problems, fell asleep at least once while presiding over a criminal trial. Her bailiff, Johnnie Jordan, testified Judge Halverson "fell asleep every day" in court.

Judge Halverson lacks a temperate judicial attitude and demeanor. Voters should not re-elect Elizabeth Halverson.

One of the challengers for Department 23 is first-term Family Court Judge Stefany Miley, a graduate of the California Western School of Law whose own scores on the Review-Journal’s 2008 Judicial Performance Evaluation were weak; only 55 percent of lawyers familiar with her performance thought Judge Miley should keep her job, while 40 percent ranked her less than adequate at properly applying the law, and also on following rules of procedure and rules of evidence.

Instead, the best choice in Department 23 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 trials while an assistant district attorney in Orange County, Calif. Jason Landess has made some mistakes over the years, and learned from them — he once won more than $1 million playing blackjack, and proceeded to lose even more. But at 62, he is a man of good character and impressive legal experience with no higher political ambitions.

Jason Landess is the best choice for District Court, Department 23.

Finally, District Judge Jessie Walsh should not be on the bench. Over the years, the percentage of local attorneys polled who say she is competent and even-handed enough to be retained has gone from 31 to 36 to 41 percent. As one of her opponents points out, "She says that’s an improvement, but that reminds me of a Monty Python sketch," in which an armored knight insists he’s fine despite having both his arms lopped off.

Three candidates are challenging Judge Walsh. The most active is also the best by far: Clark County Chief Deputy District Attorney William Kephart, who grew up in a trailer in Henderson, started out in the Laborers union, and still thanks "my dad for convincing me to get an education." William Kephart’s experience in criminal law is unrivaled — he prosecuted motorcycle gang members involved in a deadly brawl inside a Laughlin casino. In fact, he’s prosecuted 124 jury trials, losing only three. He also vows to unsnarl court backlogs by using summary judgment to toss out civil lawsuits that have no merit.

With an unworthy incumbent to remove, voters again need to concentrate their votes, and can best offer their thanks to William Kephart — who could doubtless earn more in private practice — by selecting him to go in and clean up District Court, Department 10.

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