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Two private attorneys face a prosecutor and a public defender in the primary race for Las Vegas Justice Court 16, a new department added to ease judicial caseloads.
“Justice means balancing three interests: The victim’s rights; the defendant’s rights; community safety,” says prosecutor Agnes Botelho’s campaign website.
Botelho’s application for an appointment to a vacant District Court seat last year reveals her commitment to upholding justice was tested in 2012, when as a relatively new prosecutor she was assigned a case that had languished for years and was slated for trial. The defendant was accused of sexually assaulting two girls, ages 6 and 9.
After numerous trial delays and days before the case was to go to trial in 2014, Botelho discovered exculpatory information in the police file in the form of notes from the detective in the case.
“We had pretrialed Detective [Tracy] Smith multiple times prior to the September 2013 trial date and had already combed through and organized the file prior to this meeting,” Botelho wrote in her application for the judicial appointment. “We had never seen these notes before.”
The defendant took a polygraph test that indicated he was truthful about not assaulting the children. Botelho wrote that her voice was shaking as she told the judge the state was dropping the charges.
“I had only been a Deputy District Attorney for less than five years and was up for the Chief Deputy District Attorney promotion the following month,” she wrote in her application. “I knew the dismissal of a multiple count, serious Sexual Assault on a Minor case with two victims would not be received well. I knew my judgment and preparation was going to be called into question by the more senior deputies in the Special Victims Unit… “
“I was called into meetings where my judgment was called into question and we were accused of being unprepared or scared to go to trial,” she wrote of the ensuing backlash. “I had never entertained the idea of leaving the Clark County District Attorney’s Office until then. I felt I was being chastised for doing the right thing. However, while I faced criticism from some in my office, defense attorney after defense attorney called, texted, and approached me to thank me for turning over the exculpatory material and dismissing the Case.”
Botelho, who did not respond to requests for an interview, is a native of the Philippines who moved to Hawaii as a child. She is a graduate of UNLV’s Boyd Law School. She has raised about $37,000 and has about $27,000 on hand.
Attorney Vincent Romeo was admitted to the Nevada bar in 2005 and says he began practicing full time in Las Vegas in 2010.
Romeo, a commercial litigator, says he’s done no criminal work, “other than appearing for several traffic tickets of my own.” He says he’s confident he can learn criminal procedure on the job. “Like any case, you have to assess the facts and the law and come to a reasonable rational decision.”
Although the position he is seeking is nonpartisan, Romeo is vocal on social media about his political leanings. His Facebook page features a post about a story from Dec. 2021 about the misdemeanor prosecution of a man who threatened Gov. Steve Sisolak on social media.
“When you criticize Sisolak he sicks the government and (Attorney Gen.) Aaron Ford on you,” Romeo commented on his post. “This is how Democrats maintain control and quell dissent.”
Another post references a USA Today story on a transgender man who was pregnant but diagnosed as obese. The baby was stillborn.
“This is precisely why this transgender madness must be stopped,” Romeo commented on his post. “You can feel any way you like. But you cannot Transistion (sic) from one to the other.”
“Is it appropriate on a personal page? Yeah. You know, everyone has their opinions about things,” Romeo said in an interview. “The question is can somebody have an opinion and yet still keep an open mind in a different context and setting? I think I can do that.”
Romeo says he favors retaining remote court hearings on apps such as BlueJeans, which were essential during the pandemic.
“It could be very functional,” he says. “But I don’t think it should continue for trials.”
Romeo says he’s intentionally raised no money for his campaign.
“A lot of the fundraising I see going on for judges are done by the attorneys that appear before them,” he says. “That’s just always weird to me. So I’m going to try to do this without fundraising.”
He disagrees with District Attorney Steve Wolfson, who in 2020 equated the ability of judicial candidates to raise money with their qualifications for the job.
“I look at it as judges should be judges, not politicians. It’s a completely different segment of the government,” Romeo says. “You have your executive branch, your legislative branch and judicial branch, and you have three of them for a reason. So judges shouldn’t have to raise money and campaign super hard.”
Romeo says he spent the post-Great Recession period helping property owners (mostly commercial) negotiate their way out of debt without filing bankruptcy. “There was a lot of advertising going on telling people to declare bankruptcy, and I was trying to tell people well, if they’re not suing you yet, negotiate it out.”
Romeo says he’s “done just about everything” as a solo practitioner. “Even though you know the bread and butter is in one area, there’s been a lot of jelly and jam, I guess.”
Nadia Wood has been a public defender for more than a decade.
“I’ve spent my entire career representing individuals,” she says. “My work has really given me the perspective of trying to engage in problem solving, and seeing the benefits of rehabilitation to our community.”
Will her history as a defense attorney manifest in favoritism to defendants?
“My response to anybody who’s concerned about my profession is I’m a professional. I’m going to follow the law. And I don’t think that locking everybody up is a solution for our community,” Wood said during a phone interview. “I think we’ve seen historically that’s not a viable solution. And we need judges who come with a balanced perspective of doing what’s good for the community and making sure that we’re upholding the individual’s constitutional rights.”
Wood says criminal justice reforms passed last year by the Legislature had good components, although a bail reform measure failed.
“The reality is there’s a reason the judicial races are nonpartisan, because these are issues that every member of our community should be able to get behind,” she says. “Whatever your perspective on it is, we can all agree that it is not an effective use of our tax dollars when we incarcerate somebody for years at a time for a nonviolent offense when we could be rehabilitating them instead.”
Reform issues “are seeing support from both sides of the aisle. When you just warehouse somebody and you don’t fix the problem, they get out of custody and you’re right back in a situation you were in before, opposed to when we help people deal with the mental health issues, deal with their drug problems, get the support systems in place they need, we’re actually reducing crime in the future.”
Wood has raised about $50,000 for her campaign and has $30,000 remaining.
“Asking people for money is very uncomfortable and very socially taboo outside of the political realm. But it’s something that we’re expected to do as candidates,” she says. “I think I’ve demonstrated that I’m a hard worker.”
Wood says there’s a role for maintaining remote court hearings in the post-pandemic era, but cautions “it’s important not to let go of people’s rights in the interest of efficiency.”
She says there’s no necessity to drag attorneys to court for brief appearances, but she draws the line with “something like a preliminary hearing going forward, and individuals have the right to be present, have the right to have their attorney present, have the right to have the witness present.”
Wood says she’s worked on two “seminal cases” involving equal protection. In Morgan v. State the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that individuals can’t be excluded from jury service based on sexual orientation, and the other case established “that we’ve been systemically excluding people of color from our jury pools.”
According to his website, Justin Zarcone has “a vast array of trial experience, he is extremely qualified to be on the bench in the newly created Department 16.”
Zarcone did not respond to requests for an interview. He has raised no money, according to campaign finance records filed with the state.
His website says he is running “because he wants to establish this new department as one that can be relied upon to serve our community with pride, professionalism, and the faith that they will be treated equally under the law.”
Attorney guides describe his areas of private practice as tax controversies, commercial litigation, insurance defense, aviation law, and estate planning.