It wouldn’t really have mattered if Carson City District Judge James Todd Russell had disclosed before ruling on the special election for the 2nd Congressional District that he was the co-owner of a $500 mining claim and a former law partner of Republican candidate Mark Amodei.
Russell’s ruling — very helpful to Amodei’s congressional chances — would have been appealed by the Nevada Democratic Party to the state Supreme Court anyway, and that court would still have upheld Russell’s conclusions. Let’s say Russell had disclosed, and lawyers for Democrats insisted he step away from hearing the case. Let’s say District Judge James Wilson had heard the case instead, and ruled for the Democrats. Republicans would surely have appealed, and the state Supreme Court would presumably have overturned that ruling.
Bottom line: Nothing would have changed.
But it sure would have been nice to know that the judge had some kind of relationship with one of the parties, wouldn’t it? Especially when that ruling was so beneficial to Amodei’s campaign. (Russell’s family has supported Amodei in the past; records show a $300 donation to Amodei’s 1998 state Senate campaign by the Russell Family Trust, which lists as an address property owned by the judge.)
Some background: The Nevada Republican Party had sued Secretary of State Ross Miller after Miller ruled that state law called for a “ballot royale,” in which anybody could file as a Republican or a Democrat for the special election.
The Republicans contended the “ballot royale” was inconsistent with Nevada’s election practice, which is to allow political parties to pick their candidates. They knew if all comers were allowed to run, a crowded ballot could split the GOP vote and allow a Democrat to win. (In fact, at one point, 18 Republicans had filed.)
Russell sided with the Republicans and against Miller, whose ruling he said produced “an unreasonable and absurd result; and results in unfair treatment.” The Democratic appeal to the state Supreme Court resulted in a 6-1 decision upholding Russell, albeit for different reasons. Justices said Russell applied the wrong standard to the case and chastised him by saying Miller’s interpretation “provided at least one fair explanation” for the law.
So why didn’t Russell disclose? In an interview with Reno Gazette-Journal reporter Ray Hagar, Russell said he wasn’t aware when he made his May 19 ruling that Amodei — who had declared he was running in the special election at a widely covered news conference May 9 — was even a candidate.
“I hadn’t talked to Mark Amodei in over a year,” Russell said. “And, more important than anything, he was not part of the [lawsuit].”
Oh, but he was! Amodei at the time was the elected chairman of the Nevada Republican Party, which was a plaintiff in the case. And even if we’re to believe Russell was unaware of Amodei’s news conference, it’s harder to believe he was unaware of Amodei’s post as leader of the state GOP.
Ultimately, Russell did disclose his relationship in an entirely unrelated case — this over political district boundaries. According to what the judge told Hagar, because Amodei was now a candidate, disclosure was appropriate.
But if it was appropriate in the redistricting case, it was appropriate in the special-election case, especially because disclosure never hurts and always helps. (In fact, the canons of judicial ethics call for judges to uphold and promote the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary, and to disqualify themselves in cases where their impartiality might reasonably be questioned.)
Russell didn’t even disclose, when clearly he should have. That’s true even if the results of the case wouldn’t have changed as a result.
Steve Sebelius is author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Reach him at (702) 387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.