State supreme court candidates, from left to right: Lidia Stiglich, Elissa Cadish, Jerry Tao, Mathew Harter
Some political races aren’t supposed to get political. Such is the case in contests for the judiciary. But candidates in two races for the Nevada Supreme Court are bucking the trend.
It’s been only a year since Las Vegas suffered the most deadly mass shooting in modern-American history. Litigators are fighting to keep lawsuits filed by victims and their families in state court. Amid that backdrop and a national debate over weapons, Nevada Appeals Court judge and Supreme Court candidate Jerry Tao is brandishing an endorsement from the National Rifle Association.
“I’m not aware of any other time the NRA has endorsed in a Nevada Supreme Court race,” says Tao’s opponent for Seat C, Clark County District Judge Elissa Cadish.
The NRA did not identify any other state supreme court races in which it has endorsed.
Tao’s campaign expense reports include payments to J3 Strategies, a political consulting firm which represents gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt and candidate for Lt. Governor, Michael Roberson. Both Republicans are also endorsed by the NRA. This year, Tao changed his party affiliation from Democrat to non-partisan.
Tao did not respond to requests for an interview.
Cadish, who is endorsed by the Culinary Union Local 226 and the Nevada State Education Association, says there’s nothing untoward about garnishing such support.
“I think it’s appropriate for groups who represent Nevadans to take the time to evaluate and endorse candidates,” says Cadish. “The fact that I have endorsements from labor groups, from people who live and work in Nevada, doesn’t give any indication of impropriety.”
The politicalization of the judiciary is a hot topic since the harrowing Senate Judiciary hearings for then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Did now-Justice Kavanaugh cross a line? Cadish declined to say, but she had harsh words for colleagues who make political hay in an effort to increase their chances of success.
“Our judicial independence needs to be respected and members of the judiciary should be focused on maintaining independence rather than feeding the perception that we are politicians in robes.”
What did the hearings reveal? “The judiciary is not infallible,” she says.
“Innocence” is an elusive standard in the Halls of Justice. Criminal defendants are generally found guilty or acquitted. In 2012, Cadish took the rare step of issuing an actual Order of Innocence in the case of Fred Steese, a man she determined to be wrongfully convicted for murder and imprisoned for 22 years.
“I had a lengthy evidentiary hearing on that matter where there were exhibits presented and after I reviewed that evidence I was convinced that Fred Steese did not in fact commit the murder. I can tell you the evidence was very persuasive.”
Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson lobbied against the pardon. Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who sits on the Pardons Board, attempted to abstain, which was not an option. Laxalt cast the only vote against the pardon, which was supported by Gov. Brian Sandoval and all members of the state Supreme Court.
How does Cadish account for such differences among law enforcement professionals regarding a case she viewed as clear cut?
“That’s a good question. I think as far as the D.A.’s office, it may be hard for folks in that office, that people may have put a man in prison who was innocent,” she says.
Cadish says she’s a fan of specialty courts that adjudicate cases involving defendants with drug addictions, mental health problems and other issues.
“I think they do a good job of helping people solve their problems and hopefully keep them from committing future crimes. It gives them a structural environment that helps all of us.”
But Cadish says there are not enough inpatient drug treatment beds available for indigent defendants.
“If there’s somebody I put on probation with the condition of inpatient treatment, it’s not unusual for them to wait 90 to 120 days in jail,” she says. “The folks we are sending are the ones who have a severe enough addiction issue that having them out of custody and attending counseling hasn’t been enough.”
Cadish supports judicial efforts to study the bail system, which is widely criticized for keeping the poor in jail.
“Bail shouldn’t be the only thing that we look at to see that someone stays out of trouble pending a case, and one’s financial wherewithall shouldn’t be the deciding factor for whether the person is in or out of custody,” she says.
Access to justice — or the lack thereof — is a major concern to the Nevada judiciary, says Cadish, who says justice is not only available to the wealthy, even though it may sometimes seem so.
“Unfortunately, it is difficult to litigate without an attorney — certainly in District Court because it’s not designed for the pro se litigants, “ she says. “In small claims court its routinely done that way and it’s designed to be straightforward to manage without an attorney.”
Cadish admits some parties just stop showing up for hearings in a case that “takes a while to resolve.” The failure to attend results in the case getting dismissed.
“You have to play by the rules but determine if there is merit to the claims. It’s tough to balance. I’ve had some times when a pro se litigant hung in there and was able to get paid some money from a defendant,” she says.
Why does Cadish think she’s the best choice for voters?
“I’m someone who is ready to put in the hard work, to read everything, prepare and make a fair ruling based on the law,” she says.
Cadish takes pride in being among the highest rated judges in Clark County.
“I’ve shown I’m fair to all sides on a case. I’ve had three different felony trials where the two sides stipulated to have me do a bench trial rather than a jury trial, which I found to be a great compliment,” she says.
Cadish is far outpacing her opponent in fundraising with $599,207 reported to the Secretary of State this week compared to $107,849 reported by Tao.
“The people of Nevada have chosen an elected system,” says Cadish. “In order to get the word out and run a campaign it takes funds, and unless we’re going to limit judges to people who are independently wealthy, raising money from people who are prepared to support my campaign is necessary.”
“I have attorneys who have contributed appear before me but it doesn’t mean I’m going to favor them.” she says.
“I do understand how it appears and the concerns people have. Until we change our system, raising money is part of it,” says Cadish, who says she is in favor of the Missouri Plan, in which judges are initially appointed and subsequently face retention elections.
“I think that system is preferable to a competitive election system. But it isn’t perfect, either,” Cadish notes. “I understand there is some concern a campaign could be run against a particular judge to oppose a person staying on the bench. So that’s a concern. But I think overall that’s a better system than judicial candidates running against each other.”
“We try to keep judicial campaigns positive. Unfortunately, there have been some that have gotten negative,” says Cadish.
Harter vs. Stiglich
In the race for Seat G, Clark County Family Court Judge Mathew Harter is taking on Supreme Court Justice Lidia Stiglich, who was appointed to the state’s high court in 2016 by Governor Brian Sandoval. Stiglich was previously appointed by Sandoval to the Second Judicial District Court in 2012 and retained the seat in 2014.
Harter did not respond to the Current’s requests for an interview.
His website is long on criticism of his opponent and Governor Sandoval, who consistently polls as the highest rated politician in the state.
Conversely, Stiglich declines to discuss her opponent, opting to talk about her experience on the Supreme Court.
“I can’t speak to Judge Harter,” she says. “I’ve been doing the job. I have measurable outcomes. I’ve worked hard on producing a body of law Nevadans can be proud of. I’ve grown up in courtrooms. I’ve tried to keep my standards high and produce the kind of opinions judges and litigants can depend on.”
Stiglich, like Cadish, bemoans recent efforts to inject politics into the judiciary.
“I think to the extent that courts are viewed politically, that’s a problem for all courts. It’s starting a conversation, especially around campaign time”
“People don’t know who the judges are. They really want to select, but there’s a disconnect in getting the information.”
Getting the word out requires campaign cash. Stiglich reports contributions of $741,297 as of October 16. Harter reports $12,901 in contributions for the same reporting period.
“I think most judges are pretty reluctant politicians,” Stiglich says. “For judges, you just hate to be soliciting money for campaigns. The bottom line is you have to get the message out and explain to voters who you are.”
Stiglich, who has been through the judicial appointment process twice, finds value in the fact that the vetting process gives those involved in the selection process a great deal of information about candidates.
“It’s an independent panel that can ask you questions. And if you are fortunate enough to go to the governor, you go through the process again,” she says.
The competitive election process yields little information, she says.
“Are they a lawyer and do they have the fee to file?”
Stiglich shares Cadish’s concern about access to justice for those who lack an attorney.
“We’re having trouble getting people into court. It’s either too expensive or it takes too long. They just quit,” she says “We need to improve the process so cases get adjudicated more quickly. The delays across the board are unconscionable.”
Stiglich is on the committee that oversees funding of specialty courts. She’s heard the complaints from colleagues such as Cadish, who say defendants are languishing in jail for lack of placements in drug rehabilitation facilities.
“When courts are doing that we are not operating in best practices. We should not be warehousing people who are waiting for beds,” Stiglich says. “That’s a crisis that dramatically affects the local sheriff and jails, shifting the cost on to them for a failure elsewhere in the system.”
Stiglich supports efforts to evaluate the bail system and whether the right people are being jailed.
“We have two concerns — are you going to come back to court and are you a danger to the public?” she asks. “If somebody has a low-level misdemeanor, do they need to be on an ankle bracelet? Can we just give them a release on their own recognizance? Are we creating real options or just options for people with money?”
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