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Politics a role in state Supreme Court races

SANDRA CHEREB
Associated Press Writer

RENO – Political fallout from five years ago and partisan leanings in the upcoming presidential election are being raised as issues in two Nevada Supreme Court contests to be decided in November.

Chief Justice Mark Gibbons, 57, is seeking a second, six-year term to Seat D on the state high court. Before that, he served six years as a district judge in Clark County.

Gibbons is challenged by Las Vegas attorney Thomas Frank Christensen, 52, who criticizes Gibbons over a controversial 2003 decision that set aside a state constitutional provision requiring a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to raise taxes.

For Seat B, Washoe Family Court Judge Deborah Schumacher, 53, and Las Vegas attorney Kris Pickering, 55, are vying for the position being vacated by Justice William Maupin, who is not seeking re-election.

Gibbons concedes the decision five years ago that landed the court in the middle of a budget standoff between then Gov. Kenny Guinn and the 2003 Legislature was a mistake.

In that decision, justices said the Legislature’s constitutional mandate to fund education took priority over another constitutional provision adopted by voters that requires a two-thirds majority in the Legislature to raise taxes.

“The Supreme Court jumped into it and 12 days later made a ruling,” Gibbons said. “We probably should have had oral arguments.

“We rushed it out, and it just wasn’t legally sound,” he said. Gibbons said he was behind the push in 2006 when the decision was overturned.

Christensen said the ruling exemplifies why Gibbons should be removed.

“It’s the procedure to get there that is an example of not using the law to come to a decision. It was a political decision,” Christensen said.

Christensen also criticized the court for issuing too few published opinions that set legal precedent in the state.

“It’s not that unpublished opinions are improper per se,” Christensen said. “But the way our court uses them I think is an abuse.

“They use them in cases where they are reversing things, and it would be helpful to set precedent.”

Gibbons agreed more published opinions would help, but said the court’s caseload is so heavy that justices can give that kind of attention to only the most legally important cases.

Establishing an appeals court, he said, would reduce caseload and allow for more published opinions. In Nevada, the state Supreme Court is the sole appellate court.

Christensen said he opposes the creation of an intermediate appeals panel.

Because Gibbons and Christensen were the only two candidates to file for the seat, there was no primary and both candidates advanced to the Nov. 4 general election.

In the race for Seat B, Schumacher has questioned the appropriateness of comments Pickering made during a political rally in Carson City for Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Pickering seemingly endorsed the GOP presidential ticket during the Sept. 13 rally.

“The issue for me isn’t a partisan issue,” Schumacher said, conceding there’s nothing to prohibit judges or judicial candidates from attending political functions.

Rather, she questioned whether Pickering’s remarks praising Sen. John McCain and his GOP running mate were appropriate under judicial canons that say judges or judicial candidates cannot endorse other candidates.

Pickering, responding to an e-mail inquiry through a campaign spokesman, called the criticism a “desperate campaign ploy.”

“It really isn’t newsworthy that, in this state where we have elected judges, a political candidate speaks at a political gathering,” spokesman Ryan Erwin said.

Both candidates are accomplished lawyers and say their experiences make them more qualified than the other to sit on the high court.

Schumacher was appointed as a Washoe County Family Court judge in 1997 by then-Gov. Bob Miller, and ran unopposed in 1998 and 2004. Before serving as a judge, she was a part-time Family Court master and specialized in commercial, real estate and business law.

She said the time she has spent on the bench would make her a valuable asset on the Supreme Court.

“I think clearly I have an opponent who is an accomplished lawyer, but we’re not running for the highest lawyer seat,” Schumacher said. “I think judicial experience matters.”

Pickering was admitted to the Nevada Bar in 1977 and has specialized in civil litigation. She serves as a settlement judge for the state Supreme Court, and served for 16 years as a member of the Nevada Board of Bar Examiners. She said her own experience would bring a greater depth to the bench.

Pickering’s campaign said Schumacher’s main experience is in family law, “which, while important, makes up just 5 percent of the Supreme Court’s caseload.”

Both advanced to the November election after being the top vote-getters in a tightly contested four-way primary race in which all candidates received more than 20 percent of votes casts.

Pickering received the most, 25.4 percent, followed by Schumacher with 23.6 percent.

Campaign finance reports show Pickering also raised more money than Schumacher in the first reporting period. Pickering declared $556,228 in contributions in an Aug. 5 report, compared with $317,740 reported by Schumacher. Of those totals, Pickering loaned her campaign $360,000 and Schumacher’s contributions included $150,000 of her own money.

Updated financial disclosures are due Oct. 28.