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October 30, 2014

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On Nevada’s lonely rural roads, a judge still rides the circuit blazed by forebears

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Los Angeles Times

Kim Wanker is a judge who puts some miles on her car. Nevada’s 5th District judge takes a monthly circuit trip hundreds of miles to some courthouses that haven’t changed in a century. Here, Judge Wanker poses with a furry character whose head hangs inside the courthouse in Tonopah.

GOLDFIELD — Judge Kim Wanker is behind the wheel again. The highway is a straight line into the desert’s nothingness, where crows begrudgingly relinquish their spots on the hot asphalt. She motors past wild horses, diners with portraits of John Wayne and anonymous dirt roads leading off into the scrub brush.

Soon after starting her job in 2011, Wanker got stopped by a deputy asking why she was in such a hurry.

“I’m the new 5th District judge,” answered Wanker (pronounced wonker).

“Can you prove it?”

She couldn’t. She hadn’t had time to make business cards yet.

“Well,” she offered, “I’ve got my black robe in the trunk.”

The deputy let her off with a warning, a bit of discretion Wanker sometimes dispenses from the bench herself as one of the nation’s legal oddities — a circuit court judge who still rides a circuit.

Once a month, the petite Nebraska native embarks on a journey that evokes another era. In the old days, hanging judges, as some were known, headed into town by horse, stagecoach or locomotive. Today, Wanker, 51, whizzes along paved two-lane roads in her government-issued white Chrysler Sebring. Hanging isn’t her style, but she has become known as “The Hammer” for her no-nonsense courtroom demeanor.

Wanker is one of a dwindling number of judges who still wander the West’s wide-open spaces. Montana is so big, for example, that most of the state’s 56 counties are served by traveling judges. In other places, the practice could be in jeopardy. In Wyoming, budget cuts have curtailed judicial circuits to satellite courts, meaning prisoners will be brought to their day in court and not the other way around.

But Nevada, for now, continues the practice. “Nevada’s center has always been pretty sparsely populated,” said Dennis McBride, director of the Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas. “In the old days, they needed a judge to ride the circuit. And today they still do.”

Sprawling just over 25,000 square miles, Nevada’s 5th District — encompassing Nye, Mineral and Esmeralda counties — is bigger than West Virginia. The expanse remains largely vacant, with most of the 50,000 population living in one town. That means the rest of Wanker’s turf averages 3 people per square mile, a population scarcity that rivals Siberia’s.

Wanker’s circuit often takes three days or more, covering more than 600 miles. She stops in courthouses in tiny Goldfield, Tonopah and Hawthorne, where she hears between 60 and 80 cases per trip. Along the way, the landscape features road signs advertising the dreamlike El Sueno casino, rundown brothels such as the Shady Lady and wooden shacks with placards featuring curious spelling flourishes, one selling “an-teeks.” She stops for candy on each trip, with the clerk (missing two front teeth) greeting her the same way: “Good morning, Your Eminence.”

In Goldfield, Wanker oversees proceedings in a vintage 1907 courtroom that features the original steel judge’s bench, faux Tiffany lamps and observer chairs complete with metal Stetson holders. A mounted bighorn sheep head looms over her head, confiscated from some luckless defendant decades ago. The place conjures Western court scenes from the imagination, like in the old TV show “Gunsmoke” or the 1972 John Huston film “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.”

Western-style lawbreaking has changed over the generations. Vagrants and cattle rustlers have been replaced by drug dealers, alcohol abusers, deadbeat parents, spouse beaters and, occasionally, child molesters. But Wanker, who grew up anchored by farm roots and a strong family ethic, still holds defendants to a simple, old-school standard: Stand up and be accountable for your own failures.

The judge, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval in 2011 to fill a vacancy and held on to her seat in November’s election, brings her own stamp of courtroom common sense. People once talked on their cellphones during sessions and let their children run around unsupervised. Defendants were used to getting second chances.

Not anymore. Wanker has even publicly dressed down attorneys for frequent tardiness. If she can get to a distant court on time, well, so can they.

“I see accountability, a respect for the bench, that wasn’t here before,” said Suzy Rowe, who’s seen a lot of judges in her 30 years as a court stenographer. “Nobody shows up in Judge Wanker’s court in shorts and a ripped shirt.”

Single, with no children, Wanker spent most of her career as an attorney working in employment law, with several major casinos as clients. Over the years, she continued to cultivate her tomboy side, collecting cars and riding motorcycles, mountain bikes and jet skis — anything that provides speed. She jumped at the chance to become a judge, mainly because of the monthly chance to revel in the freedom of the road.

When she sets off, she usually dresses less than judgelike, preferring a red University of Nebraska sweatshirt and sneakers. Only when she arrives at each courthouse does she switch into a black sweater and dress slacks. By the time the gavel pounds, she’s in her judge’s robe.

Wanker spends most days anchored to the bench in Pahrump, a Las Vegas bedroom community that, with 36,000 residents, ranks as her district’s largest population center. Every 30 days comes her chance to light out for the territory with the radio switched off — her mind lost in her cases.

Often, Wanker stalls behind lumbering RVs and slow-moving fuddy-duddies. But she studiously watches speed limits that plummet from 70 to 25 through most towns, knowing that, unlike the forgiving deputy she met on her first trip, backwater cops don’t cotton to outsiders — even circuit judges — with a lead foot.

Since cellphones are often useless out here, Wanker keeps satellite service in her car, along with a sleeping bag and flashlight in case she gets stranded. She also removed the vehicle’s judicial seal, for fear of breaking down and becoming prey for desert wanderers who might have a problem with a person who puts people in prison.

The sense of desolation persists even in town. Some courtrooms lack Internet service, microphones, even security. For a time, the spectator seats in Hawthorne were folding chairs mended with tape, until a local undertaker donated seats he didn’t use. Wanker got jail inmates to scrape off the crosses and spruce them up.

Without a law clerk, she hunkers down for hours to read case files, sometimes pulling out a portable grill to cook steaks outside the courthouse as she works long into the night. Late one evening she emerged from her Hawthorne office to come face to face with the family of a woman she had recently sentenced to prison. “They were not happy to see me,” she said. (Other than offering a few looks to kill, the relatives kept their distance.)

Most nights when she’s on the road, she stays at Tonopah’s Mizpah Hotel, a grand old lodging dame where Howard Hughes married Jean Peters and boxing legend Jack Dempsey once worked as a bouncer.

A century ago, judges who ran the court in Goldfield, then a mining town of 20,000 residents, suffered neither fools nor vagabonds. Reacting to a man who pleaded guilty to vagrancy, one judge wrote, “Defendant raggy and filthy,” adding: “Nothing but a cigar stump found on him.” With another vagrant, the court ruled, “He is too lazy to work but is harmless. Given a warning not to come back this way again.”

The old system died out in many Western states as suburban sprawl brought justice closer to far-flung areas. But as Wanker carries on the tradition, she does it the old-school way. Mixing her judicial empathy with the stern guidance of a miffed parent, she expresses her disgust from the bench with such phrases as “Don’t buffalo me” and “You need to pull your head out and fly right.”

But unlike judges of old, Wanker’s job requires the art of public relations. She makes time to get to know the staff in each courtroom and often hands out gavel-shaped chocolates during stops at the Tonopah senior center for lunch and poker games. Schmoozing with one tough-customer town official, she glanced at the man’s cowboy boots, which were the color of liverwurst, saying, “You always wear the swankest boots.”

Clearly pleased, the man paused. “I’ve always liked a good pair of boots,” he said, blushing.

An hour later, the circuit judge was back on the road.

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