Sunday, July 19, 2015 | 2 a.m.
In 2011, Catherine Ramsey made history as the first woman elected a Municipal Court judge in North Las Vegas.
Now, after four years on the bench, Ramsey could make history again — this time as the first judge in Nevada’s 150-year history to be voted out of office in a recall.
A group led by the city’s police union, which represents the court’s marshalls, and political consultant David Thomas launched the recall effort in March.
“She’s out of control,” North Las Vegas police union President Mike Yarter said. “The citizens deserve better than Catherine Ramsey.”
Thomas is known as a “judge maker” for his success running campaigns for district court judges, although his tactics sometimes draw complaints from opponents. He said he was brought onto the recall effort as a consultant but since has devoted thousands of his own dollars to oust Ramsey.
Ramsey and her attorney call the recall effort a politically motivated attack on a judge who has defied city leaders.
“This is a much more serious story than a disagreeable judge getting her comeuppance,” Ramsey’s attorney Craig Mueller said. “This is a public employee union dictating how things are going to be done in the city.”
Ramsey declined to comment.
The bad blood between Ramsey and her opponents transcends her courtroom actions and strikes at a broader clash with a city in flux under new leadership. “The problems started when the mayor showed up,” said Mueller, referring to North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, who took office in July 2013.
Lee, whose arrival triggered a mass turnover of city executives, has publicly criticized Ramsey, who has clashed with city officials over budgeting and staffing issues she says undermine the independence of her court.
Ramsey maintains she is holding the court to a high standard that doesn’t allow sloppy paperwork. The police union accuses her of wrongly dismissing cases, mistreating staff and lowering fines for criminals.
Ramsey is fighting the effort against her, arguing the state constitution doesn’t allow for voters to recall judges. A Clark County District Court judge rejected her argument, but Ramsey appealed to the state Supreme Court.
A ruling in Ramsey’s favor would nullify the recall, but if the Supreme Court sides against her, a recall election could take place as soon as August.
If there is an election, Ramsey would face a well-connected opponent: North Las Vegas City Attorney Sandra Douglass Morgan. Morgan announced her candidacy this month and is gathering the 1,984 signatures needed to qualify for the race.
Morgan said she decided to run after witnessing firsthand and hearing from employees about how Ramsey’s courtroom was being run. The City Attorney’s Office is responsible for charging and prosecuting cases heard in municipal court, which deals exclusively with misdemeanor offenses and traffic citations.
“I thought I did as much as I could in my current position,” said Morgan, who became city attorney in 2013 after five years as a deputy in the office. Morgan accused Ramsey of disregarding the law and not being fair in her rulings. She also criticized Ramsey’s handling of court employees; there have been three lawsuits and two complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission related to Ramsey.
In one case, Ramsey fired an employee she had promised employment to during her campaign. After the employee sued and North Las Vegas refused to defend Ramsey because the job promise was made before she took office, Ramsey used her city-issued credit card to cover $12,000 in legal expenses. The move sparked a complaint by the city to the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline; the case is pending.
Morgan, Yarter and others also have accused Ramsey of arbitrarily reducing charges or fines or dismissing cases brought before her.
“In some cases, (police) experts in fields like DUIs have checked every box, done everything they need to do, but she summarily dismisses the case,” Yarter said.
Mueller said Ramsey has held the court process to a higher standard than in the past, which has irritated police and city officials who see the court as a revenue generator.
“What’s going on is she won’t play ball with the excessive fees and fines,” Mueller said. “She went over and took that job and I believe was simply appalled at the low standard of practice there. She has been holding them to the letter of the law, and they’re not happy about it.”