Retiring Supreme Court justice served public for 52 years
After sitting quietly as friends and colleagues praised him at a recent ceremony describing him as a combination of Superman and Mark Twain, retiring Supreme Court Justice Cliff Young had a ready retort: “Now I know how a pancake feels having all that syrup dumped on it.”
The response was typical for Young. During a political career dating to the Truman era, he has been known for his ability to come up with a joke or a pithy quote at the most awkward moments.
“He is the most common guy, and I mean that as a compliment,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno. “He has never been pretentious. He knows all kinds of jokes and quips. He is like an old shoe. What you see is what you get.”
Young, who turned 80 on Nov. 7, decided last spring not to run for re-election to a fourth term on the Supreme Court.
He says his health has not been the same since he suffered a stroke on Oct. 29, 1998, while deer hunting with friends near Tuscarora. A lifelong sportsman who decorates his office with the mounted heads of game he has bagged, Young seldom hunts now, although the stroke has not kept him from fishing.
“At one time, I could do 75 one-arm push-ups,” he said. “Now I can’t even do one.”
He will be replaced Monday by Clark County District Judge Mark Gibbons, who ran unopposed winning a six-year term on the court.
A World War II veteran and a Harvard Law School graduate, Young has served in public office longer than any current Nevada politician.
In 1950, he was elected Washoe County public administrator when Nevada’s population was a shade over 160,000. He was Nevada’s sole member of the U.S. House from 1953 to 1957 and a Republican state senator from Reno from 1967 to 1981. He won his first term on the Supreme Court in 1984.
“I had my hand in the public trough for a long time,” Young joked in a recent interview.
Young is most proud of his efforts to establish the state’s park system and to build parks in his home county of Washoe. Voters approved a $5 million bond issue to build state parks in 1969. Young drew up that proposal in the state Senate.
“How many of our decisions are going to last?” Young said. “Not many. But I think my work in developing parks was the most satisfying thing I have done and will be long lasting. We all fade away, but a park continues on.”
Assistant Attorney General Tom Patton, once Young’s law clerk, isn’t surprised at what he considers his proudest moment.
“Those are things that last generations,” Patton said. “I remember we were talking about various political things, and he quoted someone about the difference between a politician and a statesman. (He said) politicians are concerned about the next election; statesmen are concerned about the next generation.”
Mounted on the walls in Young’s office are the heads of a baboon, a warthog and other animals he has bagged. More than a dozen rifles are mounted near the ceiling. Some visitors gasp when entering his chambers, which resemble a hunter’s den. But he makes no apologies.
“It is the hunter who preserved most of the species in this state,” said Young, president of the National Wildlife Federation in 1981-82. “Take the duck. We buy our duck stamps and support Ducks Unlimited. If it hadn’t been for the public support of buying wetlands, our duck population wouldn’t be nearly what it is today.”
He remembers Nevada had few antelope, elk and even deer while he was growing up in Lovelock. Today game flourishes, although three years of drought have cut herd populations.
Young said he isn’t sure what he’ll do in retirement, aside from “cleaning up around the yard and raking the leaves and staying out of my wife’s way.”
But he may take up environmental and conservation causes. The degradation of Nevada’s environment over the past 50 years bothers him.
He blames a lot of the problems on livestock owners who overgraze the range. And he believes Nevada has too many mustangs.
As a youth, Young hunted sage grouse, a bird that soon may be be placed on the Endangered Species List.
“There were a lot of them, but the habitat changed,” he said. “They liked the green around springs and meadows. But the green areas disappeared because of overgrazing.”
For too long the federal government refused to properly regulate the ranges, Young said.
“I grew up hunting and fishing, and I could see the problems developing,” he said. “I don’t know if the state is better today. The environment is gone. We have more pollution. When I first ran for office, I think we had only 250 to 300 people in the state prison system. Now there are more than 10,000.”
During his last term as a Supreme Court justice, Young pushed for many of the reforms that have allowed the court to reduce its backlog by 1,000 cases. He proposed a fast-track method of handling appeals from prison inmates and settlement conferences in civil cases.
His first two terms on the court were marked by rancor among judges. A Reno lawyer thinking about closing his law practice, Young ran for the Supreme Court in 1984 at the urging of Justice E.M. “Al” Gunderson. Within months, he was feuding with Gunderson, whom Young calls “a bright guy, but a master manipulator.”
In his second term, justices broke into two factions over whether the Judicial Discipline Commission should discipline Washoe County District Judge Jerry Carr Whitehead, his former law partner. Young sided with Justices Bob Rose and Miriam Shearing against Justices Thomas Steffen and Charles Springer, who opposed disciplining Whitehead. The battles did not end until the U.S. Supreme Court rejected petitions filed by Steffen and Springer. Whitehead ultimately resigned his office rather than face unspecified federal charges.
Young would prefer to forget other publicity. It came after he testified in 1989 before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
He was urging legislators to approve money to hire more public defenders so capital punishment cases would be handled without delay. Young compared the delays in those cases with delays in the reporting of sexual assaults by some women.
To illustrate his point, he picked the wrong joke:
“How does a woman know she was raped?” he asked. “The check bounced.”
Then state Sen. Sue Wagner, R-Reno, and other legislators were outraged. Wire services sent the story worldwide.
“I missed a good opportunity to be quiet,” Young remembered. “I wish I could have gotten as much publicity on the profound remarks I have made.”
As an Army major in Europe during and following World War II, Young spent his free time hunting in the Alps and memorizing poetry, quotes by great leaders and jokes.
“I just kind of liked memorizing them,” said Young, a member of the debate team as an undergraduate at the University of Nevada, Reno.
As a congressman, Young supported the Equal Rights Amendment and said he backed women’s causes throughout his legislative career.
Justice Miriam Shearing, who became the first woman justice in 1992, said she will miss Young. He is the person who went out of his way to befriend her when she joined the Supreme Court.
“He has always been supportive,” she said. “There was an adjustment period for me, and he was always there. He has really added to the court.”
Young said he will miss his colleagues, but he has no regrets in leaving public life. A sign on his desk makes the joke for him: “Old lawyers never die. They just lose their appeal.”
Nevada Supreme Court Justice Cliff Young will retire after a career of public service that began in 1950.
Photo by CATHLEEN ALLISON / SPECIAL TO THE REVIEW-JOURNAL
Nevada Supreme Court Justice Cliff Young is seen on the bench in Carson City in April 1998.
REVIEW-JOURNAL FILE PHOTO
Cliff Young on Dec. 5 in his Carson City office looks through some of his favorite quotes. Mementos from a lifetime of hunting and fishing cover Young’s office walls and bookshelves.
Photo by CATHLEEN ALLISON / SPECIAL TO THE REVIEW-JOURNAL
Cliff Young through the years: early in his career.
Cliff Young through the years: circa 1982
Cliff Young through the years: in October 1992