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Note: Primary elections are slated in five Las Vegas Justice Court departments. The Current is profiling candidates in all of the races.
The three-way battle for Las Vegas Justice Court Department 9 pits sitting Justice of the Peace Joe Bonaventure against prosecutor Danielle Pieper Chio and public defender Shana Brouwers.
Bonaventure won his first election in 2004, just three years after graduating from UNLV’s Boyd Law School. He is seeking a fourth term in Justice Court.
His father, District Court Judge Joe Bonaventure, presided over high-profile cases in Clark County, including the trial of Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish, who were convicted in 2000 of murdering casino heir Ted Binion.
“I’ve been a judge for over 17 years now,” he says, adding he’s “amazed when I say it out loud.”
He presides over criminal cases, but has split his caseload between criminal and civil matters, including small claims and evictions. He says he established the countywide Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and had a “substantial amount to do with establishing an initial appearance court” which operates daily, and ensures defendants timely appearances before a judge, rather than a paper review of their case.
“We now have two sessions for probable cause reviews,” he says. “Normally the defendants appear in court actually in front of a judge within 12 to 24 hours” of arrest.
Bonaventure says the Justice Court has been largely unaffected by modest legislative reforms to the criminal justice system. He says the court had already adopted the practice of requiring the prosecution to prove a defendant is a danger to the community before the Valdez-Jimenez ruling by the Nevada Supreme Court in 2020 officially shifted the burden from defense to prosecution, in an effort to ensure pretrial defendants do not remain incarcerated simply because they can’t afford bail.
Results, Bonaventure says “have been overwhelmingly positive,” though he did not have data available. “The percentage of individuals who are complying with conditions of release that are actually making their court appearances and not reoffending is a significant number. So it does appear to be working.”
Bonaventure ran unopposed in 2010, and defeated two opponents in the primary in 2016. “I won overwhelmingly,” he says. “I got nearly 60% of the vote.”
He says he’s not aware of why he’s being challenged in this election.
“I have not heard from them directly,” he says of his opponents.
Shana Brouwers, a chief public defender for Clark County who is making her first bid for public office, says Bonaventure was elected “fairly early” after being admitted to the Nevada Bar.
“And so I don’t believe he has an extensive amount of actual practical experience as an attorney,” she says.
Brouwers calls her other opponent, Chio, a “career prosecutor.”
Chio told the Current she was unable to take the time to be interviewed because of her involvement in a murder trial.
“Volunteer work inspired me to go to law school, to be a voice for victims of violent crime,” says Chio’s website. A campaign video features an endorsement from fellow prosecutor and Democratic state Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro.
She has raised $99,641 and spent a third of that.
Chio became a prosecutor for the City of Las Vegas in 2003. She moved to the Clark County District Attorney’s office in 2005. She joined the Special Victim’s Unit in 2009, prosecuting sexual assault cases, and was promoted in 2012 to team chief of the gang unit.
“My work at the Gang Unit also included finding alternatives to incarceration,” says her website.
Brouwers says she chose the Department 9 race because a number of her public defender colleagues are running for other seats in Justice Court.
“I thought that I could bring a different perspective to the voters,” she says. “I’m not gonna say bad things about either of my opponents because I have an immense amount of respect for both of them.”
Brouwers says she practiced civil law for two years before becoming a public defender. She currently represents defendants accused of sex crimes.
While recent legislative reforms did not address sex crimes (“they are loathe to address that,” she says), Brouwers says she was disappointed the Nevada Legislature failed to outlaw the death penalty.
“I have friends who practice on the murder unit and it’s of paramount importance to them,” she says. “It’s very alarming to represent someone where their life is literally on the line like that and I don’t think that capital punishment is appropriate.”
She has raised no money for her campaign.
“That’s frankly been partially by design,” she says. “I have no problem or qualm with anybody who wants to raise money or anything like that,” she says, adding she’s been in three trials in recent weeks.
In 2020, following the election of several public defenders to Clark County District Court, District Attorney Steve Wolfson bemoaned the election of candidates who made no effort to raise money.
“In my opinion, in past elections, there was a greater correlation between how much effort a candidate put into the campaign and the result — a more direct relationship between efforts and results of fundraising and who won,” Wolfson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
His comments were directed at the-public defender Erika Ballou, who won election to the bench without raising money.
“I actually kind of think quite the opposite,” says Brouwers, adding Ballou is “one of my very best friends.”
She says she made a conscious decision not to raise money right away. I don’t believe there should be a correlation between how much money you can get from other people and whether you’re qualified to do the job.”
Brouwers, like many attorneys, says she’s hopeful a Supreme Court commission will decide to continue the use of remote court appearances, which became popular during the pandemic when courts were closed.
“I think it’s been an incredible tool, especially for public defender clients, where sometimes scraping together money for a bus ticket is an issue,” she says, adding getting to court is “an impossibility, or at least a huge barrier,” for some clients.
She says some court matters, such as preliminary hearings with live testimony and sentencing hearings, should be heard in live court, with exceptions for obstacles such as travel.
“I have mixed feelings about it,” says Bonaventure, who says he allows remote appearances in his court pending the outcome of a Supreme Court committee charged with determining best practices going forward. “It’s definitely frustrating at times, just the quality of it and maybe people taking advantage of it by not appearing in court when they actually could do so.”
“Access to Justice and transparency is incredibly important to me,” he says, adding as chief judge, he investigated whether he had the authority to mandate the recording of proceedings in all courtrooms, but determined he did not.
“It has to be each individual judge’s decision to do that,” he says. “But I recommended to the judges that we do it. I didn’t see any reason not to.”
Bonaventure has raised $12,700 and spent all but a few hundred dollars.
“The fact that judges have to raise money and it’s usually from attorneys who are appearing in front of their courts, I think it’s very unpleasant,” he says. “The voters should be making the decisions on their elected officials and it becomes trickier though, when it comes to judicial elections.”
He says he frequently discusses the topic with other elected officials, including judges. He says one option is to appoint Supreme Court and Appellate Court judges, while the lower court judiciary would remain elected.
Bonaventure says he rejects the notion that the most qualified candidate receives the most money in contributions.
“I have handled every type of case in Justice Court,” he says. “I run on experience.”
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