Challenges against sitting judges are relatively rare. This cycle, Mary Kay Holthus, a career prosecutor, is hoping to unseat Clark County District Judge Mark Bailus, who was appointed to fill a vacancy in Department 18 in 2017.
Holthus says she’s running because “a number of people asked me to.”
“I think I’d make a more experienced criminal judge,” said Holthus, who has been a prosecutor with the Clark County District Attorney for 27 years and worked in civil law for two years at Jones Jones Close and Brown. “His (Bailus’) experience is more civil.”
Bailus was appointed to the bench in 2017 by Governor Brian Sandoval.
“His trial and appellate experience in both civil and criminal law makes him well-suited for this appointment,” Sandoval said of Bailus at the time.
Holthus says she’s aware of a need in the Eighth District for good criminal judges.
“Prosecutors make pretty good judges,” Holthus says. “Their ratings are high among defense and civil attorneys.”
“After 27 years, I think I can determine the one who needs to go to prison,” she said.
Bailus says there are good criminal judges on the bench, but not many who have both civil and criminal experience.
“I don’t like talking about myself, but I’ve received a great deal of praise from attorneys saying it was a great pleasure practicing in front of someone who knows both criminal and civil law,” Bailus says. “I think that’s what separates me from my opponent in terms of background and qualifications.”
Bailus has practiced personal injury, family law and has handled complex civil and criminal cases, according to his biography.
As a deputy special public defender, Bailus was responsible for appeals of capital murder cases to the Nevada Supreme Court.
Holthus says she’d be comfortable presiding over cases involving defense attorneys she currently battles in court.
“Absolutely. Obviously, there’s always a couple, but I believe I have a good relationship with my defense attorneys and we know it’s nothing personal,” she says.
As for raising money from some of the same lawyers she goes up against or who may appear before her, Holthus says “It’s incredibly uncomfortable for me We haven’t raised that much money. I wanted to be a judge. I didn’t think through the campaign part.”
Her campaign reports contributions of $56,561 while Bailus reports raising $316,432.
Asked if she thinks the appointment process is preferable to electing judges — or it it’s tainted by political juice — Holthus says she doesn’t know. She also has no opinion on the Missouri Plan, a process by which judges are initially appointed and then face retention elections.
“I don’t know enough about it, honestly,” she says.
“The people of Nevada know we elect judges and raising money is part of it,” says Bailus. “Keep in mind, for 37 years I was on the other end, giving contributions, so people have responded well.”
Nevada voters have rejected proposals to appoint judges on multiple occasions. “It was put before voters as a ballot question and the people decided they want to elect their judges,” says Bailus. “I’ve enjoyed the process. I’ve met with as many people as possible and listened to their concerns.”
Chief among their concerns, he says, is access to justice and the high cost of litigation.
“Attorneys are very expensive. People don’t have a lot of discretionary funds to hire attorneys. The one thing I’ve noticed since I’ve been on the bench is a lot of requests for people to have filing fees be waived, and in many cases they are representing themselves in proper person,” Bailus says. “When I have a pro se litigant, the first thing I tell them about is the Self-Help Center over at the Justice Center. Or to contact the state bar for referrals because many attorneys will take payment plans.”
Holthus says she’s not aware of the challenges litigants who can’t afford attorneys have in gaining access to justice.
“I come from the criminal world. If you don’t have an attorney, we’ll get you one,” she says.
Holthus has prosecuted a number of infamous defendants, including Deborah Sena, a mother who escaped her abusive husband with her children and stepchildren and sought refuge in a shelter for victims of abuse.
When Sena filed a police report against Christopher Sena and volunteered that her husband forced her to engage in sex with him and their children, Holthus prosecuted the woman as well as Sena’s ex-wife, who also lived with the family. Both women accepted plea deals.
“I’ve always said and said on the record several times — but for Chris Sena, I don’t believe either of those women would have perpetrated on the kids.”
Yet, Holthus has no qualms about sending Deborah Sena to prison for ten years to life.
“I absolutely will tell you I think those women were responsible and liable to a point to allow that to go on in that home,” Holthus says. “I saw the videos and I wouldn’t have prosecuted otherwise. They were the kids’ last line of defense.”
In a January of 2016 letter to District Attorney Steve Wolfson, the Sena children pleaded for the release of Deborah Sena.
“Deborah Sena came into our lives 17 years ago. Throughout our time with her she was the family breadwinner, the nurturer of the children, and the responsible and sober adult. She was our best protector and role model, and did everything she believed she could do to protect us. She was ultimately the person who helped us escape from Christopher Sena and turned him in to the authorities… We are sad and angry because you and your office are punishing our mothers. We are sad and angry that you are punishing us victims by depriving us of our mothers. Stop saying you are representing us and our interests. You are not! We beg of you to let real justice be served. Please imprison Christopher Sena for the rest of his life. He is a danger to us and to society.We beg you, Mr. Wolfson, to release our mothers, who have already served nearly a year-and-a-half in jail as punishment for being abused by our father.”
Today, almost three years later, Christopher Sena has yet to be tried.
Holthus declined to comment on Marsy’s Law, Ballot Question One, which supporters say would augment rights for victims, but she says she’s a “victims’ rights fan.”
Holthus is known for defending the District Attorney’s practice of paying witnesses.
In 2013, when Las Vegas attorney Dayvid Figler criticized prosecutors for destroying records of witness payments, Holthus stated in court “It’s not digital. It’s not because we are trying to thwart Mr. Figler and his efforts. It’s because we’re the county and we’re the government and this is how we work.”
The prosecutor says she’s a fan of specialty and diversion courts but agrees resources for some programs are sorely lacking, such as in-patient drug treatment facilities.
“I wish we had more facilities,” she says of the delay in getting inmates into treatment. “In jail, they’re off the drugs. It’s a kick-start. The alternative is prison,” she says.
Bailus says allowing inmates to languish in jail while waiting for an in-patient treatment bed places an unfair burden on the jail.