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A Nevada Supreme Court Justice, who said she was threatened during her campaign last fall, is now enmeshed in a legal dispute with the same people. That alleged threat against Kris Pickering eventually led to an FBI investigation.
This new twist is much more than mere political intrigue. The stakes for Clark County taxpayers are huge, involving perhaps billions of dollars. The latest development is all about eminent domain lawsuits and what appears to be an attempt by lawyers to handpick the judges who get to hear the cases.
When the I-Team first interviewed Pickering back in October, she was a lawyer and candidate for the Supreme Court. She won a close race in November and now sits on the bench. But during her campaign, she heard an odd offer from her campaign manager Gary Gray, who told her that $200,000 would be put into her race by eminent domain attorney Laura Fitzsimmons. The money could go to Pickering or to her opponent. If she wanted the donation, she had to agree to sign a deal.
"If I'm elected, I will not sit on any case on which Laura Fitzsimmons or her law firm show up as counsel for any party in the case. I said to Gary, ‘I'm not doing that. I don't think it's ethical and I don't think it's legal," she said.
Pickering went to the FBI, who bugged her office for her next meeting with Gray. Agents opened a case file but charges have never been filed.
Now, lawyer Fitzsimmons is taking another shot at making sure Pickering never hears her cases. A letter was sent by Fitzsimmons' attorney Stan Hunterton directly to Justice Pickering in late February, asking her to recuse herself from an eminent domain lawsuit against McCarran Airport.
The letter says that since Pickering essentially accused Fitzsimmons of criminal behavior for her role in the alleged threat, and since an investigation might still be underway, Pickering should recuse herself, which is what Fitzsimmons allegedly tried to achieve in the first place before Pickering was even elected.
Boyd Law School legal ethics expert Nancy Rapaport says the whole thing is very unusual, including the fact that Hunterton's letter was sent to the judge privately, instead of being filed in court.
She thinks Hunterton has a point, "If a judge is going to be a fact witness in a case against a lawyer, then the judge can't hear a case in which the lawyer appears in front of her because that would create a conflict at that time. I guess if you wanted to set up a way to get a judge off a case, it's possible you would come up with this idea, ‘Let's make sure the judge is a witness against me,' because for a strategy thing, that may backfire."
Pickering's response to Hunterton denies having a disqualifying bias against Fitzsimmons, but said if, in fact, a criminal case is filed against the lawyer, one in which she might be a witness, and if that happens at the same time as the McCarran case is being heard, she could see how a recusal would be justified.
This isn't the first time Fitzsimmons has sought to choose which judges hear her cases. In the late 90's she repeatedly accused Justice Bob Rose of bias against her because she supported his election opponents. Years later, Rose agreed, in private, to recuse himself from all of her cases.
The eminent domain cases now pending against McCarran and the county could cost the taxpayers up to $2 billion by some estimates, assuming they are upheld by the state Supreme Court.
Attempts to reach Stan Hunterton were unsuccessful.