Las Vegas Sun

May 20, 2019

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Judge’s re-election bid prompts debate over influence, impartiality

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John Coulter

Las Vegas Municipal Judge George Assad recently sent voters a flyer bearing eight police emblems, one for each law enforcement group that has endorsed him in his race for re-election.

His website also features the police badges. And a radio campaign spot notes Assad is endorsed by former Sheriff Bill Young, who says he has never known anyone better qualified to be a judge. “I’m the only candidate in this race that has been endorsed by every single law enforcement association in Las Vegas,” the nine-year incumbent says. “None of my opponents have even one endorsement.”

It’s a distinction that at least one of Assad’s opponents says should concern voters. Dayvid Figler, a Las Vegas criminal defense lawyer who is challenging Assad, says the judge’s boasts about police support raise an ethical red flag.

“He touts his endorsements by law enforcement more than any judge I’ve ever seen,” Figler said. “Shrouding one’s self in those endorsements is contrary to the idea of impartiality.”

Assad says he always tries to be impartial when deciding cases. He describes himself as “fair but firm.”

“I try to listen courteously and answer wisely and consider every case soberly and with careful thought,” he said.

Nothing in Nevada law prohibits police unions or other groups that frequently have business before judges from endorsing them as candidates, and it’s common practice nationwide. The same goes for judicial campaign contributions from police officers, lawyers and others who regularly appear in their courtrooms.

But questions about impartiality inevitably plague a system that puts judges through a political process to reach the bench.

Figler argues such relationships undermine judicial impartiality, if not in reality then in perception.

“He has curried a lot of favor with the police, so any decision he makes when he finds someone guilty, that person is going to wonder if he is guilty because of the evidence or because (the judge) has a very cozy relationship with the police,” Figler said.

Judicial races are typically decided by a small number of voters, many of whom know little about the candidates. The races are nonpartisan, and as judges or potential judges, candidates can’t speak about policy positions. So endorsements by various constituencies can hint at what a candidate stands for and signal to their members the candidate is worthy of donations.

But surveys show more than 80 percent of voters think campaign contributions influence judicial decision making. Even many judges agree.

Figler, who was appointed as a temporary Municipal Court judge in 2003 by Mayor Oscar Goodman, has refused campaign contributions from anyone who might appear in his court. He says he is the only candidate in the race to do so.

It has cost him significantly, he said, but “it’s all about the appearance of impropriety. Judges must scrupulously avoid even the appearance of bias.”

Assad said it’s impossible to run a campaign without financing — an opinion many judicial experts agree with.

“The perception (of bias) will always be there when that system is in place,” Assad said. “But it’s the system that the voters chose and we as candidates have to respect that.”

In November, Nevada voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to make judges appointed rather than elected.

“The bottom line is, if the people of the state want to elect their judges and have decided not to fund elections, then judges have no choice but to go out and pound the pavement for money,” said Charles Geyh, associate dean of Indiana University’s law school and an expert on judicial ethics. “Lots and lots of lawyers give small amounts of money to judges because it’s a show of confidence in the system, not because they are trying to buy influence.”

Geyh said problems with endorsements arise if judges make promises about how they will rule.

Assad describes himself as “a judge tough on crime.”

That type of rhetoric has gotten other judges in trouble, Geyh said.

“If it implies that in a case between the state and the defendant, your instinct is to err on the side of the state, that’s a problem,” Geyh said. “And honestly, that’s not the judge’s job. It’s the prosecutor’s job.”

This is Assad’s first contested race. Goodman and the City Council appointed him to the bench in 2002 and he won re-election in 2005.

His other opponents in this race — lawyers Heidi Almase, Chris Davis, Anthony Goldstein and Nicholas Perrino — take more umbrage with Assad’s record than his support from police.

Several opponents point to shoddy ratings Assad received in judicial reviews.

A 2010 Las Vegas Review-Journal judicial performance evaluation revealed that 69 percent of those surveyed thought Assad should not be on the bench. He was the lowest-rated judge in Las Vegas. About 60 percent found Assad “less than adequate” in his ability to fairly weigh evidence, and 57 percent rated him “less than adequate” when asked if he is free from impropriety or the appearance of impropriety.

Assad brushes off the criticism, saying the survey polls defense lawyers who don’t like his tough-on-crime stance. Actually, the survey was sent to every Clark County Bar Association member.

Assad’s opponents also cite a 2007 reprimand by the Nevada Judicial Discipline Commission for a case in which Assad ordered a nurse into custody until her boyfriend appeared in court to settle unpaid traffic tickets. Assad was ordered to apologize to the woman, but took more than a year to do so.

The field challenging Assad mushroomed shortly before the Feb. 5 filing deadline, two days after police announced Assad’s son had been arrested on charges of robbing a casino. Anthony Carleo is accused of being the “biker bandit” who stole $1.4 million in chips from the Bellagio in December.

Police found five guns in the Summerlin home Assad shares with his son and other children. Two of the weapons were similar to the gun used in the robbery. None was registered to Carleo, police said. They did not specify to whom the guns were registered.

Assad’s opponents were loath to say publicly that the case against Carleo prompted them to challenge his father, and Assad would not discuss the case. But privately, many in the legal community wonder about the timing of the arrest, so close to the filing deadline, and the uncharacteristically vague details about the guns’ provenance.

That speculation may or may not be supported by evidence, once it’s presented in court, but until then it is providing Figler with ammunition as he criticizes Assad’s ties to police.

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