Monday, Jan. 5, 1998 | 10:27 a.m.
CARSON CITY -- There's a changing of the guard on the Nevada Supreme Court today as Charles Springer takes over as chief justice.
The 69-year-old Springer, a center of controversy on the court in recent years, doesn't plan any major changes, saying things are "going smoothly" with the backlog of cases being reduced.
He succeeds Miriam Shearing, the first woman to head Nevada's court system. Springer will be chief justice for one year until the end of his term, which will complete 18 years on the court.
As chief justice, Springer is entitled to an extra administrative assistant. And he will use that person to put together a citizens' committee to push for creation of an intermediate court of appeals.
"The court has never taken an active enough part to promote the intermediate court," Springer said. "That will be one of my priorities."
He intends to name citizens, not lawyers and judges, to the committee.
Springer says a good case can be made to the general public that an intermediate court is needed because of the state's growth. A proposed constitutional amendment that was approved by the 1997 Legislature must be passed by the 1999 Legislature and then ratified by voters before the new court can be established.
Will Springer's elevation to chief justice spark renewed in-fighting among the justices? Nobody knows.
"Whatever the real or perceived problems, they have never interfered with that part of the process," Springer said, referring to the court's decision making.
No doubt there's been some bad feelings among some of the justices, Springer concedes, but adds, "There has never been any rudeness."
The court meeting last week, he said, was "cordial, cooperative and productive."
Justice Cliff Young, who has been a target of much of Springer's criticism in the past, says he doesn't know what to expect.
"If he runs (for re-election), I think he will be more affable and cordial. If he doesn't I don't know.
"Charlie is a great mystery. There are signals he's going to run and then there are signals he's not going to run," Young said.
He said he gets along with Springer, who he said has a "good sense of humor." But he agreed the two disagree on substantive issues.
Springer hasn't decided if he will seek a fourth term. "There are lots of pros and cons," Springer said.
And he has yet to launch a fund-raising campaign. If he does, he is looking into a recommendation of the American Bar Association that those running for judge should never solicit funds in their own name.
"If I run, I would like to have a blind trust to collect money."
The biggest court furor evolved when Springer and former Chief Justice Thomas Steffen teamed up to stop the state Judicial Discipline Commission from moving against former District Judge Jerry Whitehead in a prolonged and high-profile case. It split the court with Steffen and Springer on one side and Shearing and Justice Bob Rose on the other. Rose eventually stepped down from the case. And Young disqualified himself.
In the past two years, Springer has written an increasing number of dissents to the majority opinions. He has sharply criticized the state in cases where children were taken away from their parents. In the court's decision to uphold the removal of North Las Vegas Municipal Judge Gary Davis from office, Springer said the majority ruling was a "great miscarriage of justice."
Springer was in the minority on the case in which convicted killer Thomas Nevius, on death row, argued that Young should be disqualified. The court ruled 2-1 that Young could sit on the case. But Springer dissented, saying Young should step aside because of his "public flaunting of his (Young's) 'record of fighting crime' (during an election campaign) when Nevius was watching and waiting the outcome of his death sentence appeal."
Asked about the growing number of dissents, Springer quipped that he writes them "only when I'm right."
Young says Springer has "been dissenting. But he's only one of five. Miriam (Shearing), Bob (Rose) and I see things the same on reform," referring to changes in court procedures to speed up the handling of cases. Springer opposed Young's suggestion for a fast-track system on criminal cases. Instead he labeled it a slow-track process.
But Young said the changes are working.
"He (Springer) can't bring himself to acknowledge this as an improvement," he said.
But Springer said it's been the added staff that has helped the court cut into its backlog. "The more staff, the more output," he said.
Young said Springer will probably be in his court office more when he takes over as chief justice.
"He (Springer) works at home. He doesn't show up at the court," Young said.
Springer graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno in 1950 and earned his law degree from Georgetown in 1953. On occasions, he has been viewed as a maverick.
He was the attorney for university English Professor Paul Adamian, a ringleader in a major anti-Vietnam protest on the Reno campus. Adamian was fired and Springer sued his former law partner, Procter Hug Jr., who is now chief justice of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Hug was chairman of the Board of Regents at the time.
He became political allies with Grant Sawyer, who was elected governor. He served as state Democratic chairman, and acted as a front man for the Sawyer Administration. Springer was then appointed attorney general in 1962 by Sawyer. In 1966, Springer jumped into the Democratic primary election race against his former friend Sawyer. It turned out to be a bitter contest. Springer lost but the party had been split and Sawyer was defeated in the general election.
Many thought Springer's political career was over after he turned on Sawyer. In 1974, he challenged Justice Gordon Thompson for a place on the court and lost. But in 1980, he beat District Judge Paul Goldman of Las Vegas to win a seat on the Supreme Court. And he ran unopposed in 1986 and 1992.
Before his election, Springer served seven years as the Juvenile Court master in Washoe County and was generally recognized as an expert in the field.
He was one of the few male members on the Nevada Commission for Women; and he headed a Nevada Supreme Court study on gender bias in the judiciary.
He recommended and the court agreed also to study racial discrimination in state's judicial system.
Springer said the court has decided to combine the recommendations on those two studies.
"We're getting to the point of implementation," he said.
Every time there's a study, it gathers dust, he said.
"We're going to try to get rid of some of the dust."