LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Lawyers and business interests who could one day appear in front of the Nevada Supreme Court have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the two candidates vying to fill the high court’s vacant seat, the I-Team found.
State Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo, D-Las Vegas, is running against Clark County District Court Judge Douglas Herndon to fill Seat D on the panel. Judicial candidates and judges do not align themselves with political parties and run as non-partisan. In all, more than 130 judicial candidates are on the ballot across Nevada this election cycle.
Fumo and Herndon have raised more than $1 million combined. Both men told the I-Team the money is needed to promote their records, mainly through television advertisements.
Herndon has outraised Fumo 2-to-1, according to reports filed with the Secretary of State’s Office. As of Oct. 15, Herndon’s campaign raised $777,000 to Fumo’s $337,000.
The State Bar of Nevada’s rules prohibit a lawyer from “seek[ing] to influence a judge, juror, prospective juror or other official by means prohibited by law,” meaning a lawyer can legally contribute to a judicial nominee’s campaign. The First Amendment also protects a person’s right to contribute to political campaigns, Dr. Francis Carleton, a political science professor at the College of Southern Nevada, said.
Fumo and Herndon agree it is not about money, but remaining independent and impartial.
“It’s all about integrity,” Fumo said. “If you have it, nothing matters. If you don’t have it, nothing else matters.”
“You’ve either got the ability to be independent or you don’t,” Herndon said. “If you’re going to be not independent, you don’t have any business being in court, period.”
A 2015 report from the Brennan Center for Justice found 63% of donations made to state supreme court candidates nationwide in the 2013-2014 cycle came from lawyers, lobbyists and other business interests.
“It raises questions about — at the very least – perception,” Carleton said. “When you have one side before a judge that’s given a contribution and when you have one side that hasn’t — that’s when it can be most problematic.”
The I-Team found the campaign for Democratic Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson donated $2,500 to Herndon’s campaign. Herndon said the two men are long-time colleagues.
“I don’t think that impacts my ability to be impartial, Herndon said. “Twenty-five hundred dollars is a lot of money, obviously, but I don’t think in the context of a campaign, it’s an amount of money that would make anybody say, ‘Wow you can’t be impartial now because that guy gave you that much money.’”
“I have been in the legal community in Clark County for over 40 years, and I personally know many of the candidates running for office,” Wolfson said in a statement to the I-Team. “However, I am very selective about who I choose to publicly support in these races. My support is determined by my personal knowledge of the candidate’s qualifications and my belief that they are the best choice to fill the position. Nevada rules of ethics do not prohibit me, as the district attorney, from supporting individual candidates in any type of race. When I choose to do so, it is because I strongly believe that candidate is good for our community and will be fair and balanced in the duties of the office they are seeking.”
“It becomes in a sense a leap of faith,” Carleton said about donations from those working in the legal field. “It’s not inaccurate to say that.”
Fumo and Herndon both noted donations from the legal community show trust in their leadership and support in the field.
On top of donations made directly to the campaigns, political action committees can indirectly finance a candidate as well. Both Fumo and Herndon said they are aware of at least one PAC working in their favor.
The majority of states elect judges, but some have governors or lawmakers appoint them, similar to the federal process. Advocates trying to get money out of judicial races suggest a public fund from which candidates could draw from or no judicial elections at all.