Balancing the bench: Several public defenders win judicial races

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Back in October, the Mass Liberation Project along with the UNLV Black Lives Matter movement hosted a panel discussing the role of judges in the criminal justice system and the need to bring a more balanced perspective to the bench.

The Nov. 3 election had judicial candidates vying for seats from the Nevada Supreme Court to local district courts to family courts, and organizers wanted voters to be particularly aware of the public defenders running for office.

“We wanted to highlight the importance of these judicial seats,” said Leslie Turner, who heads the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada’s Mass Liberation Project. “Even if they were disenchanted with the presidential election, it was really important people participate in the local elections because this is what impacts us every day.”

Though ballots are still being counted and final numbers will trickle in over the next week, seven public defenders are currently on track to win their judicial races:

  • Carli Kierny running in the Eighth Judicial District Court Department 2
  • Monica Trujillo in Eighth Judicial District Court Department 3
  • Jasmin Lilly-Spells in the Eighth Judicial District Court Department 23
  • Erika Ballou in the Eighth Judicial District Court District Court Department 24
  • Christy Craig in the Eighth Judicial District Court Department 32;
  • Dee Butler in the Eighth Judicial District Court Family Court Department J.
  • Belinda T. Harris in the North Las Vegas Justice Court Department 3.

The Eighth Judicial District Court, which had the majority of the public defender candidates, currently has 32 civil and criminal judicial departments and 20 in the family court. 

Legal groups and criminal justice advocates note that the majority of District Court judges have a background in civil litigation or previously worked as prosecutors with the Clark County District Attorney’s office.

Electing public defenders, said Kierny, who as of results Monday had 55 percent of the vote in her race against Richard Scotti, will change the judicial landscape in Southern Nevada, which is “going to go from two on the district court bench to eight.”

“You need different backgrounds and people who have worked directly with those impacted by the decision the judges make so you know what it’s like on families and individuals when you send someone away,” she said.

Public defenders “know what conditions of probation are appropriate and what ones actually help. What programs actually work and help people make changes rather than what just sounds good on paper. You want to actually help people become productive citizens opposed to just paying lip service to that idea.”

Tuesday’s election wasn’t the first time the Mass Liberation Project has tried to elect reform-minded candidates. In 2018, the group also tried, and failed, to oust Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson, echoing national efforts to elect progressive attorneys in district attorney races. 

“We are starting to now see a lot of organizing around judicial races (nationally),” Turner said. “This was our first go at it in Las Vegas. We are starting to see this as another lane of strategy for transforming the criminal justice system.”

Even though Turner sees the number of public defenders winning judicial seats as a positive, there is more work to be done when it comes to the justice system. 

“We can put the so-called right people into these positions, but the system itself doesn’t work,” Turner said. “We need to start looking at the root causes to why people end up entangled in the criminal justice system in the first place as opposed to just continuously triaging the problem over and over and shuffling people in and out of jails and prisons.”

“These are some pretty crazy firsts in 2020”

While Southern Nevada’s judicial system has traditionally lacked perspectives from public defenders, it also hasn’t had many people of color. 

“When institutions reflect the communities they serve, they garner more public trust,” said Lilly-Spells, who as of Monday was defeating her opponent Karl Armstong with 55 percent of the vote. “When the system doesn’t reflect the population of the community, then it’s not working for everyone. We all take our experiences to the bench. It’s hard to sit in judgement of people when you don’t understand their experiences and how they got there.”

When those are absent, she continued, judges and attorneys can often lean on unconscious bias — though she says sometimes it is conscious and explicit — that can lead to harsher sentencing depending on race

Of the seven public defenders who won, five are women of color, bringing an additional change to the judicial landscape.

Trujillo isn’t the first, but among the few Hispanic women to serve at the District Court.

“Dee Butler in family court is going to be the first African American ever in Family Court,” Kierny said. “Belinda Harris will be the first African-American just in North Las Vegas ever. These are some pretty crazy firsts in 2020.”

Pointing specifically to the child welfare system, Turner noted the importance of having a Black judge finally preside in the courtroom.

“We look at demographics and the numbers, Black and brown families are the majority of cases caught up in the (Child Protective Services) system or impacted by or involved in the Family Services Division,” Turner said. 

Kierny didn’t know what to attribute the shift, but noted it wasn’t the first time Nevada has made similar shifts to electing more women.

“Nevada has been trending this way for quite some time,” she added. “We had the first female-majority Legislature. Our Supreme Court for the first time is majority female.” 

What happens now?

Balancing the bench, and criminal justice reform in general, has received a fair share of criticism, Turner said.

“It’s not about leniency, which is the narrative from the other side,” she said. “They think we just want a bunch of judges on the bench who are going to be lenient. It’s not about that. It’s looking at root causes to why people are in the courtroom.”

A judge, Kierny said, has an opportunity to address those underlying issues rather than imposing a sentence or fine that doesn’t add in rehabilitation.

“A lot of times we recognize a client has a terrible drug problem but there is no rehab facility available for up to 90 days or no beds available,” she said. “Someone who is in a mental health crisis needs to get into mental health court but it will take months to get there because of the lack of bed space. So it’s working with the social service agencies to see what’s available and seeing how we can increase those resources out there. Maybe we need to start working on more specific types of treatment for mental health issues.”

Lilly-Spells said while there has been an increase in people convicted of nonviolent and drug related offenses, an issue the 2019 Legislature worked to address, it’s not a judge’s job to legislate change from the courtroom.

“I don’t think the judiciary is the place for criminal justice reform,” she said. “That is placed more appropriately in the legislative branch whose job is to create laws. From the judiciary branch, our job is to interpret the laws when they are unclear and enforce them.”

She added the judge can make sure there is equity in sentencing.

In addition to fair sentencing, one of Lilly-Spells’ priorities is to have more community engagement to help people better understand the court system. 

“I don’t see a lot of judges in communities that they need to be,” she said. “I don’t know if I see judges reaching out to diverse areas and that is something I’m passionate about.” 

In addition to holding newly-elected judges accountable, Turner said once the dust from the election settles, the Mass Liberation Project plans to have more events where judges engage with the community.

 “It’s important judges come out of chambers and make themselves more accessible with the public and have more dialogue with the public,” she said. “Historically, we haven’t been able to have in-depth dialogue with judges because they say, ‘Oh, we have to be neutral.’ But you can’t be neutral in a human rights conversation.”

CORRECTION: The story was revised to acknowledge other Hispanic women have been elected to the bench.

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.