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It costs a half million dollars on average to become a Nevada Supreme Court Justice according to a report released this week. The candidates themselves however only spent 7-thousand dollars of their own money to sit on the highest court. KNPR's Ky Plaskon reports.
PLASKON: Nevada Supreme Court candidates took in 3 million dollars during the last election from lawyers, lobbyists, gaming, real estate, communications and construction industries. That's 73 percent more than was donated three years ago when the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada started tracking contributions to judges. Paul Brown is the Alliances Southern Nevada Director.
BROWN: To us activists that are following this it seems like a conflict of interest when someone that gives large contributions, sometimes 10-thousand or more and then has a case in front of that judge, it just seems unseemly, it certainly gives the appearance of an uneven playing field.
PLASKON: An alliance study between 1997 and 2002 showed that 8 out of 10 Nevada Supreme Court cases had a major donor before the justice. To figure out what industries were donating the most, the alliance cross-referenced thousands of names of donors with federal elections web sites. Lawyers were at the top of the list.
HEJMANOWSKI: Basically the purpose is just ot help these judges get their message out.
PLASKON: Paul Hejmanowski is one of 80 lawyers for Lionel, Sawyer and Collins who's employees donated more than any other attorney firms last year - more than 30 thousand dollars. He's reluctant but willing to question the current judicial campaign financing system.
HEJMANOWSKI: The present system that we utilize means that judges have to take time to raise money in order to raise money, For the people who are in office I would much rather that they spend that time working on the case load but the present system requires that.
PLASKON: He says a system of appointing judges would be more dignified and economical. Attorney donations to judges on the campaign trail are often seen as intended to impartially help their colleagues. The perception of impartiality isn't in the cards for the other top donor, gaming, says Brown of the Progressive Leadership Alliance.
BROWN: Gaming had a love hate relationship with the candidates, they loved the ones that ended up winning and hated the ones that lost, they didn't give a dime to Joe Hansen or to Cynthia Steel. So they certainly were good at choosing the winners and gave them a lot of money too.
PLASKON: Gaming is the number one special interest donor to the court. Mandalay Resort Group was the highest donor in the gaming category at nearly 80-thousand dollars, but MGM/Mirage has since taken over the company. Combined, the two spent 132 thousand on judges and candidates. Alan Feldman is Senior Vice President of MGM Mirage.
FELDMAN: Electing judges is a situation in which too many factors come into play and can risk turning judges actions into political actions and that is clearly not good. In the larger scheme of things we would agree with anyone that the appointment of judges would be a more prudent public policy.
PLASKON: Feldman favors a process where judges are appointed, but even that can turn into a circus he says, as evident through the current US Supreme Court nomination hearings.
FELDMAN: At the least it can give that impression. I don't know if there can be any perfect process and all the special interests lining up on that issue, one would seem to think that it could lead to payback for support during a nomination process.
PLASKON: Nevada Supreme Court Justices didn't return phone calls from KNPR. Campaign donations have been at the forefront lately. In the last Clark County election, even judges who ran unopposed raised and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some spent their campaign donations on political and ethnic clubs, even sports teams. Campaign donations are inviting other questionable activities by judges says Paul Brown of the Progressive Leadership Alliance.
BROWN: We had a family court judge accused of keeping a list of donors. And then we had another judge that was brought up with election charges for demanding contributions. But as these cases come up more and more it may not be just any one thing. It will be an accumulation.
PLASKON: With enough momentum he says he would ask the governor to study changing judicial campaign financing law to be more like the Missouri Plan - where judges are appointed. If that doesn't work he says a citizen petition will. He also likes the idea of publicly funded elections. North Carolina was the first to install such a system in which judicial campaigns are financed through court fees.
Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR