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August 29, 2014

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High court removes judge from bench, at least for now

Vegas lawyer wins year-long fight for ‘integrity of the constitution’

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For the past 12 months Las Vegas attorney Robert Lueck has been telling anyone who would listen that Robert Teuton was illegally serving as a Family Court judge.

Teuton had not been on the ballot in the next general election after his August 2008 judicial appointment, and that was a violation of the state constitution, Lueck argued.

But Gov. Jim Gibbons, who appointed Teuton, and the Nevada attorney general’s office tried to brush off Lueck, saying Teuton couldn’t have followed the letter of the law because the appointment was made a week after the August 2008 primary, making it impossible for Teuton to get on the November ballot that year.

So Lueck, a former Family Court judge who had competed with Teuton for the appointment, took his argument to the Nevada Supreme Court. And Thursday the court said Lueck was right.

But Lueck didn’t gloat.

“The constitution won,” he said. “This maintains the integrity of the constitution and the judiciary, and that’s all I really cared about. It was never personal.”

Teuton, a former assistant district attorney, was on the bench Thursday morning hearing a divorce case when he got the word that he no longer was a judge. The attorney general’s office had sent him an e-mail summarizing the Supreme Court opinion declaring his seat vacant.

After reviewing the opinion, Teuton didn’t wait for the governor to formally ask him to step down. He stopped working immediately and arranged for senior district judges to take over his cases.

But although Teuton did move off the bench, he didn’t move out of his office.

He took his personal papers home but that was all. He expects it will again be his office next year. He will go through a three-month judicial selection process required to compete for his job again.

“I plan on being back here when the governor reappoints me,” Teuton said from the Family Court judge’s chambers.

And just for good measure, he said he’s also declaring his candidacy for the Family Court seat in January.

The broader issue for the state, however, is that ambiguities in the law must be cleared up to prevent others appointed to the bench under similar circumstances from going through the same disruption to their professional careers, Teuton said.

If the voters approve a constitutional amendment next year to switch from an elected to an appointed selection process, the problem will be resolved.

But there’s no guarantee that will happen. Voters have rejected similar amendments over the years.

If the amendment is voted down, the public will be left to deal with the practical effect of the Supreme Court decision in his case, Teuton said.

“It’s not cheap to go through the judicial selection process,” he explained. “It costs thousands of dollars.

“In my case, I don’t think anybody anticipated that we would go through this elaborate process to find the most qualified individual for the governor to appoint — only to go through the same process a few months later.”

That’s because nobody expected Teuton’s claim to the office would be successfully challenged — nobody except for Robert Lueck.

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