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October 20, 2014

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Musical chairs on judges’ bench

The odds of incumbent judges winning reelection are staggeringly high - helping explain why 60 percent of sitting state judges run unopposed - yet new leadership almost certainly will direct much of the Regional Justice Center by January 2009.

A few judges have announced intentions to retire at the close of 2008 - the end of all judicial terms in the county. All 41 judicial seats, plus two state Supreme Court seats, will be open - and some are expected to be hotly contested. Six seats are being added to ease the mounting caseload - of which five will be based at the county's Family Court.

At least nine judges will be new come January 2009, probably more.

Though no one is sure how it will all shake out, there is rumbling over potentially polarizing candidates. And some hope that new leadership will usher in a wave of technological improvements and continue the push to add facility space.

Next week, longtime Court Administrator Chuck Short, 51, is expected to formally announce his plan to retire early this summer. Two of the justice center's assistant administrators - Ed Friedland and Steve Grierson - have indicated a desire to succeed Short, he said.

"Any time you have years of experience, there's always concern about continuity at the current level of operations and efficiency," said Short, who has been the court's administrator for more than 14 years.

Stewart Bell, the presiding judge of the court's criminal division, and longtime Judge Sally Loehrer definitely are retiring. Judge Lee Gates hasn't told his staff whether he'll seek another term.

Justice Court Judges Douglas Smith and Abbi Silver have told peers they'll file for seats on District Court, which handles more serious cases. Smith, the Justice Court's chief judge, is poised to seek Gates' seat, insiders say.

Former Family Court Judge Terrance Marren, who resigned that post about a decade ago, is rumored to be interested in returning.

Marren was a controversial figure during his tenure and was fined by the Nevada Judicial Discipline Commission for dragging out decisions in three divorce cases.

Then there are the questions surrounding Judge Elizabeth Halverson. Kathy Hardcastle, the chief judge of the justice center, barred her from the courthouse amid allegations of a series of ethical lapses and judicial missteps - a decision upheld by the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline, which suspended Halverson.

Yet Halverson has held on to her judicial seat.

"I'm sure she'd like to keep it - I know she wants to," said Halverson's friend and former office temp Bobbi Tackett.

The "will she or won't she" question will be answered by Jan. 18, the last day would-be judges can file for the November election.

Insiders doubt the personnel changes will fundamentally transform the court. But they won't be cosmetic, either.

A personality shift seems likely, and perhaps is already under way. Four judges joined the court in January 2007, replacing two who advanced to the state Supreme Court and a couple of retirees.

Bell, in particular, will be difficult to replace, say attorneys, public defenders and prosecutors. He is widely credited with improving the efficiency of the court, dispensing cases to judges who may have a little more time than others. He could be replaced on the bench by his daughter Linda Bell, an assistant federal public defender.

"We always see changes in other institutions, but they always survive, don't they?" said local attorney Charlie Waterman.

Las Vegas lawyer John Momot added: "I hate to see all these people leave. These are tough jobs to fill. But we have a lot of competent people over there."

A previous wave of personnel changes did have an effect on operations at the Regional Justice Center.

Three judges who joined the bench five years ago identified how cases got bottlenecked in the system and have worked to streamline it, Short said.

The next court, Short anticipates, will be more tech-savvy.

The four newest judges have encouraged officials to set up a virtual courthouse, one that county residents could use to access case information on the Internet. District Court case information is available on the Web, but Justice Court data won't be up until summer at the earliest, officials say.

Overall, the typical resident probably won't observe a dramatic transformation, Short predicts.

"I think there's enough strength there that while there'll be changes, we'll continue to serve the public," said Short, who isn't ruling out his own run for office one day.

The court's next major challenges, he suspects, will be easing the crowding at the new yet severely cramped Regional Justice Center: "As this community grows toward 3 million, we've been encouraging the County Commission to look at the next phase of facilities. No one has stepped up with a plan for 2020."

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