A blue-ribbon panel voted 18-2 Wednesday for a plan changing the way Nevadans pick judges, from open races to appointments followed by elections in which voters would decide whether a judge should be retained.
The Article 6 Commission, formed by the Supreme Court in 2006 to review Nevada's court system, also voted unanimously to support a plan for an intermediate appeals court between the high court and the state's district courts.
The so-called Missouri Plan system of appointing judges was pushed by Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, who serves on the Article 6 panel and brought it up at a Nov. 28 meeting only to face numerous questions from the co-chair of the panel, Paula Gentile.
"This is not a perfect solution, but it's certainly a giant step forward," Raggio said Wednesday in repeating his November arguments for SJR2, approved by lawmakers last year and up for a vote in the 2009 Legislature. After that, the proposed constitutional change would go to a public vote in 2010.
Gentile remained unconvinced, saying she's all for improvements to the judicial system but doubted that going to appointments of judges "adds anything to the equation." She favored more emphasis on evaluating judges' performance on the bench.
Panel member Frank Ellis also opposed the plan, saying he was concerned that the change would create more of a perception of "good old boys and good old girls" since judges wouldn't be running in open, competitive races.
Raggio and other supporters said the plan still gives voters a voice through elections to determine whether a judge should be retained - and such races would require far less campaign contributions. He said the current system requires too much campaign cash and creates an appearance that judges aren't impartial and favor their contributors.
Similar plans have been rejected repeatedly in Nevada, either in the Legislature or by voters. But Raggio has said he believes support for the concept is growing.
The veteran lawmaker also has pointed to what he termed "horrible" reports that three-quarters of voters believe that campaign contributions have at least some influence on judges' decisions.
That statistic was provided by the Justice at Stake Campaign, a nonpartisan group that seeks impartial, independent courts.
Under SJR2, judges initially would be appointed to their jobs by a selection committee. To remain on the bench, they'd face retention elections in which they'd have to get at least 55 percent of the vote. If they didn't, a new judicial appointment would be made.
SJR9, the appellate court plan also endorsed by the commission, has come up repeatedly in the Legislature over the past 30 years, and made it to the ballot twice - in 1980 and again in 1992 - only to be rejected by voters.
Advocates say the appeals court is needed because of the increasing litigation that stems from Nevada's rapid growth. They argue that various steps to keep up with the high court's workload have helped, but now it's time to move the court system up another level.