Retired Tatro says job has changed dramatically
Newly retired Justice of the Peace John Tatro says the job is different now than when he first donned a black robe 24 years ago.
He said it’s gotten much more complicated, more legally technical than in the past, to the point where lay judges — non lawyers — may soon be a thing of the past.
When he was first appointed in 1995, Tatro, now 64, said he had the benefit of being a peace officer and a hearings officer for gaming control for more than a decade.
“But if I had those same skills today and came into this job, I’d be lost,” he said. “Robey (Willis) and I, unfortunately, are the end of an era because it isn’t just common sense any more.”
Willis was a longtime Carson JP who was on the bench when Tatro arrived and was a strong supporter of non-lawyer JPs.
Tatro said in large part what has changed is the law.
“I think a big part of it is we’re talking about people losing rights now at the misdemeanor level that they, perhaps, didn’t lose before,” he said. “Because of that, there’s a need for attorneys to do things in municipal and justice court that were reserved for district court in the past.”
He cited domestic battery cases as an example. A misdemeanor domestic battery conviction strips away a defendant’s 2nd Amendment rights.
“By necessity, motion practice has evolved due to changes in the law,” he said.
When presented with a tough legal issue, Tatro said the best thing he learned was, “shut up and take a time out and go figure it out.”
He said he would recess the court and go read the statute, the cited case or ask one of the other judges.
“I can run upstairs and talk to Judge (James) Wilson or Judge (Todd) Russell and discuss the issue without being embarrassed I might not understand the complexities.”
Over the years, he said he had the benefit of mentoring from not only those two district judges but Mike Fondi, Mike Griffin, Bill Maddox, Willis and Carson’s other JP Tom Armstrong who he described as “one of the smartest human beings I’ve ever met.”
“All of them mentored me and helped me along the way,” he said.
He said the cases before the Justice Courts are far different now than two decades ago and many more involve drugs.
“I remember my 13th year as a judge, I had my first heroin case that I can recall,” he said. “Now, 11 years later, you see them every single day of the week.”
He said the same thing is true with methamphetamine cases.
Now, he said, he’s seeing the grandchildren of the defendants who were in his court when he started.
“That’s the part that kind of brings you down. You see the effect and impact families have on each other. You feel frustrated but you can’t do anything about it.”
He said too many times he’s heard about mom or dad doing drugs with their children.
“What chance does that child have with that foundation?”
Tatro said those situations support his belief more specialty courts are needed at the lower court level. To get to most current specialty courts, a person has to be charged or convicted of a felony. Tatro said misdemeanor specialty courts can catch people much earlier than that and have a better chance of helping them with their addiction, mental health and other issues.
“Judge Armstrong is all over that with his misdemeanor treatment court,” he said.
He said mental health court was his favorite because, “that was where I thought we were making a difference not just in the defendant’s lives but their family’s lives.”
But one of his favorite cases of his entire career was the charges against two meth addicts for breaking into the burial crypt of a long-dead former Carson district attorney and stealing the head off his skeleton.
“They put it in a backpack and sold it,” he said. ‘The craziest part of that is who would buy a head and how would you know somebody who wanted to buy a head?”
Among his least favorite cases, he said, are those involving protective orders.
“When somebody has to come in and ask a stranger in a robe for protection against a person they said ‘I do’ with, it’s very, very sad,” he said.
Even worse than that, he said, were some of the neighborhood disputes, “and we had plenty of those over the years.”
“People lose sight of what they were fighting about,” he said.
But the darkest moment came in 2011 when a man with a grudge put two high-powered rifle bullets through the front door of his house in the middle of the night.
The perpetrator was eventually caught and told deputies Tatro was rude to him on a speeding ticket in 2000.
“He harbored that hate for me all those years,” he said.
Tatro said in that case and too many other situations, “what I learned over the years is you can’t make rational something that’s irrational.”
“We always try put a rational thought process on some of these people and it isn’t there,” he said.
Tatro declined to seek another term this past election cycle and is, at least briefly, retired. By the time this article is in print, he’ll be back as a part-time senior judge, taking assignments from lower courts in Carson City and across the state.