Judicial tyrant

With 18 candidates battling to become mayor of Las Vegas, down-ballot elections for municipal judge don’t get much attention.

That’s not only unfortunate, it’s disproportionate: No other elected official has as much power over a single person’s life as a judge.

Take George Assad, the Department 3 incumbent seeking re-election against six challengers.

Back in 2003, the newly appointed Assad threw a woman in jail after she came to court on behalf of her boyfriend, who was tardy in paying traffic fines. Assad — who said later he believed the woman had lied to the court, and that her boyfriend had threatened one of his clerks — decided to throw his judicial weight around.

 ”So unless you want to get him down here real quick, we’re going to have to lock you up until he gets here,” Assad said. “I think he knew that, so that’s why he sent you here in his place.”

Assad added: “Well, you’re going to have to go with my marshal in the back and make a phone call. Tell him [her boyfriend] you’re going to jail if he doesn’t get his butt down here real fast.”

And the woman did go to jail: She was handcuffed and placed in a holding cell while she tried to reach her boyfriend, who eventually came to court.

You don’t have to be a judge to know what Assad did was a shocking abuse of authority. You don’t have to be a lawyer, or even a law student. All you need is a passing familiarity with the Constitution and a basic sense of decency.

Which, as you will see, Assad lacks.

After the incident, the couple filed a complaint with the state Judicial Discipline Commission, which ruled Assad had violated the canons of judicial conduct and should be censured. And instead of doing what he should have done from the start — apologize — Assad fought the matter. He argued he never intended for his bailiff to take the woman into custody, and that the officer misinterpreted his words. The commission’s only concession was to conclude that Assad’s behavior was not “willful,” allowing for the possibility he’d not intended for the woman to actually go behind bars.

Read his quotes again and see if that makes sense.

But Assad wasn’t done: He appealed the commission’s ruling to the state Supreme Court. Justices concluded Assad had violated the canons, but that censure was too harsh a punishment. Instead, they ruled, he should apologize to the woman and take a judicial ethics class.

A year later, Assad still hadn’t apologized, and didn’t until the discipline commission prompted him. His apology letter began, “In compliance with the Nevada Supreme Court’s decision filed on June 12, 2008, I wish to offer you this formal and sincere apology for my non-willful conduct … “

Both the discipline commission and the Supreme Court noted Assad hasn’t repeated his misconduct, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s been a good judge. In the Review-Journal’s biennial judicial survey conducted in 2010, 69 percent of the 113 lawyers who filled out papers said he shouldn’t be retained, the worst score of any judge in the survey.

Assad failed to return calls for this column. But he was recently caught on tape falsely claiming the Review-Journal surveyed only criminal defense attorneys. (The survey goes to all attorneys, regardless of practice area.) “I don’t want to be popular with the criminal defense bar,” Assad told the Veterans in Politics group.

But he does want to be popular with police: He’s received the endorsement of every law enforcement agency in the valley. Can Assad be fair to criminal defendants, if he’s so proud of being disliked by their attorneys?

There’s no other elected official who can more directly affect your life than a judge. It’s helpful at times to remember how judges use their power — or abuse it, as the case may be.

 

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist. His column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at (702) 387-5276 or SSebelius@ reviewjournal.com.

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