JUNE 08, 2006
Las Vegas is known as “Sin City” for its wild nightlife, nonstop gambling establishments and strip clubs but it turns out that its judicial system operates in similar impropriety, with judges who routinely rule in cases involving friends and business associates and in favor of lawyers who donate big bucks to their campaigns.
A three-part investigative series about the courts of Sin City shows how the 21 judges in the Las Vegas court system dispense a style of frontier justice, a fast and loose Wild West system that clearly violates ethical and legal boundaries. They hear civil and criminal cases and can be assigned anywhere in Nevada yet are considered district judges because they work out of courthouses in the judicial districts where they are elected.
The judges openly accept money and lavish fundraising parties from lawyers with big cases before them and lawyers publicly admit that, in Las Vegas, giving money to a judge’s campaign creates a hedge against bad things happening. Both parties call it “Hometown Justice” and one veteran Las Vegas attorney said financial contributions get you juice with a judge, adding that if you have juice, you get different treatment.
Those who don’t dish out the dollars will be punished with unfavorable rulings. One California business owner who refused to contribute to the campaign of the Las Vegas judge presiding over a case involving his company, asked the judge to withdraw from the case. The judge refused, the case went to trial and the business owner was ordered by the judge to pay $1.5 million in damages.
The investigative series also provides numerous anecdotes of judges who ran unopposed yet collected thousands of dollars and gifts such as televisions, fancy wine and theater tickets from attorneys with cases assigned to their courtroom. One judge gave $10,000 of unspent campaign money to his girlfriend. Not surprisingly, they all claim that their decisions are based on the facts and the law and that they don’t even know who contributes to their campaign.
A big part of the problem is that the state’s highest court, the Nevada Supreme Court, allows such lawless behavior because those justices also collect money from lawyers and casinos for their own campaigns. The state also does not require judges to reveal when their donors appear before them.
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