Talking with the first black justice of the Nevada Supreme Court as he takes the reins as chief justice
Michael Douglas never dreamed of being a judge while growing up in Los Angeles in the 1960s. If anything, he was going to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a teacher and coach. But extra pay for advanced degrees led him to the Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, which led him to a legal practice, Las Vegas and, ultimately, the robes of a judge. This year, Douglas — the first black justice of the Nevada Supreme Court — will wrap up 14 years on the state’s top bench as chief justice. He spoke with Desert Companion in his spacious office in the new Supreme Court building Downtown.
So what are the perks of being chief judge?
There are none. You sit on en banc matters [cases heard by all seven Supreme Court justices], but as chief, since you're not on a panel, you sit on a panel if somebody else has a conflict. So the tradeoff is you get all the administrative headaches.
What do you think of the state of the judiciary in Nevada right now?
It's doing well right now. It can do better. We are under the same crunch as the rest of the folks who work for the state government in terms of staffing, having adequate staff to do what we're charged with doing. Our primary function is to adjudicate matters, rule on things. So we're in a situation if we had more people we could turn more cases.
So going back to your days in California, how did you decide on a career in law? What drew you to the law?
Best education, to say it simply. I was headed into teaching and coaching; that's what my father did. But understanding the economics of the job, at the time, if you were in the one of the state systems or local systems, you needed at least a master's degree to make any money doing those things. So I was going to need a master's degree to do it. And some friends were, like, “Oh, go to law school.” So, I took a flier and managed to get into a school, Hastings in San Francisco, and that's kind of where it was at, and the journey began.
Did you, before you went, or during, did you imagine you'd be a judge someday?
I couldn't imagine to be a judge, because I never imagined to be a lawyer. (Laughs.)
So how did that change? How did you decide to practice law?
It's one of those things, once you get in it, you realize there's a lot of opportunities. One of the things that the profession has gone through say the last, say, five to 10 years with attorneys which I don't totally understand is there's so many options with your law degree in business. You don't have to be a courtroom lawyer, you don't have to be even a transactional lawyer, you can be in-house counsel, you can be an adviser, you can use it for your own purposes doing some other things. So it's a great education
In your tenure with the courts, how have things changed?
A number of things. The easiest thing is we have more women involved in the law than we had before. In the state of Nevada, unlike some other states because of ethnic population, we have more minorities involved in the law, as lawyers, than we had in the early 1980s when I first got here.
Have things [with respect to minority judges] changed enough?
At some points, no. Reno has still never had a black District Court judge. But again, it's based on their population of blacks in the law. ... I think they have about 10 black attorneys up there now, and the majority of them are out of Boyd Law School, so they're going back home. They came down here and got educated, and they're going back home. So there's growth up there.
Tell me how, if at all, being that historic first [black justice] impacts you as a justice of the Supreme Court. Or does it?
It does and doesn't, all at the same time. It doesn't in one way because your job is ruling on the law, making decisions. It does in another way because any time you're the first at anything, people look at you more, they want to analyze you more, so as they say, they're grading your homework, whether you want them to or not. So that's one thing, you didn't set out to be necessarily somebody's role model, but you're looked at and held up both ways, good or bad, as the job that you do.
There have been attempts in this state to have judges appointed exclusively and then maybe run in retention elections. You've been an appointed judge, you've been an elected judge, you've been on both sides of it. What do you think is the better way to go, or does it matter?
I think it matters, but the question is, what is the best? Because when you come down to it, they're both political. The appointment process, even though there's a screening process, that can be political, depending upon who is doing the screening, and then how the governor handles it.
One of the most common voter complaints I hear at election time is “I just don't know how to decide who is a good judge.”
We're in a time where, I like to say, you're only as good as your last ruling. But depending on where people feel on an issue, they think you did the right thing or the wrong thing. So with the Supreme Court, when we issue a decision as to public financing of private schools, we issue a decision on eminent domain, people are on one side or another. And if your vote went this way, they like you, or if it went that way, they don't. And that's the odd thing for judges: A regular politician runs on “I will do this for you.” A judge runs on “I will be fair and impartial and listen to both sides before I rule.”
And that's the most you can probably expect.
And the second part of that, in terms of what people see, what is your demeanor on the bench? Do you listen? Are you courteous? We can't be Judge Judy. (Laughs.) We can't holler and scream. We've had a few, and after a point, they got voted out. But you can't do that. People expect, and lawyers expect, that you're going to listen to them. At least let them make their pitch. You may not rule in their favor but you're going to listen.
So, political ideology is something people talk about on the courts all the time. ... There was a Stanford study back in 2012 that said you were a "liberal leaning" justice. Is that fair to conclude here?
It's a conclusion. (Laughs.)
Where do you see yourself [politically] and does it matter in terms of how you do your job?
I think it matters in how you do your job, but, by the same token, if people really take a look at your body of work and not just one or two cases, then they have to come to a conclusion, are you willing to follow the law or are you not willing to follow the law, liberal or conservative, both ways? Because you may be liberal, but if you're following the law, you have to be willing to say, “I can't get there from here.” And the same if you're conservative, sometimes, it's like, “I don't like this, but that's what the law says, I'm going to follow the law.” Those are the people you want on the bench. That's hopefully at the end of the day what I'm viewed as.
Would you say those who are in power in Nevada get what they want, more often than not?
They have a better shot at it, because they have the tools. I mean, it's like a bumper sticker that says “My lawyer can beat up your lawyer.” That's a concern ... if something happens, who can you afford to have represent you? And depending on who the other side is, who do they have represent them? You get your day in court. What kind of day you get in court is the question.
What will you do after you leave?
I'm not going to go into full retirement. Right now, I will probably sit senior, which means as a former District Court judge I can go back and sit cases as people need time away from the bench and things of that nature. I still enjoy doing what I'm doing. I enjoy the puzzle, finding the answer. … Even after I walk out of this place, I'm still going to be interested in access to justice, I'm still going to be interested in drug courts, I'm still going to be interested in educational opportunities for minorities who want to go into law. That's not going to change.
Would you ever think of teaching, like at Boyd?
I would think about it. ... Somebody took time out of their day to coach me, and for me at this point and at other points, this is my opportunity to return what was given to me, the giving back. And that's how you help keep the place a nice place to live if you're willing to do that. Corny or not, that's what it is. Yeah, you get as much as you give.
Interview edited for length and clarity