Nevadans are reluctant to give up their right to vote for judges in popular elections — or any other public officials for that matter — a fact reinforced earlier this year in polls commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal and 8NewsNow, in which a majority of respondents rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would change how judges take the bench.
But a growing, disparate and influential number of proponents say the campaign money judicial candidates must raise, millions of dollars in Nevada each election year, taints the integrity of the state’s judiciary when wealthy plaintiff attorneys and others with frequent business before the court throw in big bucks.
In public life, and especially a judge’s public life, the appearance of impropriety can be just as damaging as actual impropriety.
“It’s beneath the dignity of a judge to ask for campaign contributions,” prominent Las Vegas builder Irwin Molasky said in a recent interview. “How would you feel if you went to court, and you didn’t contribute to the judge, but your opponent did?”
Ballot measure opponents say they worry an appointment system would encourage cronyism and backroom deals.
“Appointment removes an essential level of public scrutiny and is an undemocratic way to select justices and judges and ignores the will of the people,” opponents wrote in their ballot statement. “This question assumes an uninformed electorate and presumes that a select group of individuals are better qualified to choose those who will sit on the bench.”
Proponents of the change say it’s difficult to explain adequately the qualifications of scores of candidates running for dozens of judgeships. In Clark County, 50 district judges will be on the bench in January.
Only Supreme Court justices and district judges would be subject to retention elections two years after their appointment, according to the ballot proposal.
Voters would continue to elect justices of the peace and municipal judges. Currently, voters have to wait six years to remove bad judges, barring extraordinary action by the judiciary, as occurred in the case of disgraced former judge Elizabeth Halverson when the high court removed her from the bench.
Candidates who hope to fill a vacancy must submit a thorough application to a Commission on Judicial Selection, which would consist of attorneys, judges, private citizens and others.
The commission will oversee comprehensive background checks, weigh qualities of applicants and forward names of at least three to the governor. Prior to a retention election, a performance evaluation will be done and results will be made public before voters go to the polls. A judge will have to earn at least 55 percent of the vote to remain in office.
Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is the most influential proponent, but people and groups usually at odds, such as State Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno and Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, also support merit selection. The chambers of commerce in Las Vegas and Reno are on the same page as the AFL-CIO. Both Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature overwhelmingly support the measure.
But convincing a reluctant electorate might be a tough sale. In a Mason-Dixon Polling & Research poll in April, only 28 percent of respondents favored merit selection compared to 59 percent opposed. Thirteen percent were undecided.
A July poll by the same firm showed slightly different results, with 27 percent in favor, 54 percent opposed and 19 percent undecided.
Contact Doug McMurdo at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-224-5512 or read more courts coverage at lvlegalnews.com.2010 GENERAL ELECTION VOTER GUIDE