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Taking the Initiative: Judging the (Supreme Court) Judges

In the last few weeks, there’s been a whole lot of talk about the current state of the U.S. Supreme Court. Yet while only 100 U.S. Senators get to vote to confirm judges to the nation’s highest court, we do things a little differently here in Nevada. In the Silver State, voters ultimately decide who sits on the state’s highest court.

So who are these judges running, and why are these races such a big deal? Here’s the rundown on the two Supreme Court seats on our ballot this fall.

What’s at stake with the Nevada Supreme Court judicial elections?

Over the past year, we’ve seen some high-profile cases work their way through Nevada state courts. Think of the ongoing fight over Southern Nevada Water Authority‘s (SNWA’s) proposed pipeline to Eastern Nevada, or the Walker River Irrigation District case that may also fundamentally reshape the state’s water rules, or Nevada Republicans’ attempt to recall two Democratic State Senators, or the lawsuit against Governor Brian Sandoval (R) and Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R) for their refusal to enforce the voter-approved law to expand background checks for gun sales.

What do all these cases have in common? They will all probably be decided by the Nevada Supreme Court in the near future.

There are seven seats on the Supreme Court, and three of these seven are up this year. While Justice-elect Abbi Silver has already been elected to fill the vacancy being left by Justice Michael Douglas (thanks to winning a super-majority of the vote in the June primary), two other seats will be decided in the general election. Here are the candidates running.

Seat G: Justice Lidia Stiglich vs. Judge Matthew Harter

When Justice Nancy Saitta announced her resignation from the Court, Governor Sandoval appointed Lidia Stiglich to fill her vacancy. But because Saitta’s seat was already up for election in 2018, Stiglich is running to stay on the Court and serve a full six-year term.

While Stiglich is a Sandoval appointee and previously served as then Lt. Governor Brian Krolicki’s special counsel prior to Sandoval appointing her to the Second District Court in Washoe County in 2012 (where she then won election to a full term in 2014), challenger Matthew Harter has framed himself as the “strict constructionist conservative” running against “judicial activist progressive” Stiglich. Not only has he been raising questions over Stiglich’s marriage to former Sandoval Chief of Staff Michon Martin, but also Sandoval’s standing in his own party (cue Adam Laxalt).

Harter himself was elected to the Eighth District Court in Clark County in 2008 and reelected in 2014. Yet while judicial elections are officially nonpartisan, Harter is essentially running as the “de facto Republican” against a judge who was appointed by our Republican Governor (though also a judge who’s been endorsed by PLAN Action and Nevada AFL-CIO). Meanwhile if Stiglich is elected to a full term and Assembly Member Nelson Araujo (D) is elected Secretary of State, they will be Nevada’s first openly LGBTQ+ statewide elected officials.

Seat C: Judge Elissa Cadish vs. Judge Jerry Tao

While the Stiglich vs. Harter race features two candidates with prominent ties to Nevada Republicans, Judges Elissa Cadish and Jerry Tao both have ties to one premier Nevada Democrat. Long before he became a judge, Jerry Tao was a speechwriter for U.S. Senator Harry Reid (D). And in 2012, Reid encouraged then President Barack Obama to nominate Elissa Cadish for a federal judgeship.

Both went on to win election to the Eighth District Court in Clark County (though Tao was later appointed by Sandoval to the new Court of Appeals in 2014). Yet while Cadish remains in good standing with the state’s senior Democrats and progressive groups (she’s also been endorsed by PLAN Action and Nevada AFL-CIO), Tao has undergone quite the political “extreme makeover”. While he’s now registered to vote as a Nonpartisan, Tao is using the same political consultants who are working for Laxalt and Lt. Governor hopeful Michael Roberson (R) while he tries to scrub all records of his past ties to Reid.

Why has Tao rebuked his former Democratic colleagues and embraced Nevada’s most powerful Republicans? The answer may lie with the most powerful Nevada Republican of them all. Tao’s consulting firm also has deep ties to one Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino magnate who’s had to navigate a stormy scandal over his business’ alleged ties to organized crime in Macau, a scandal that has caused him legal headaches around the world and closer to home. Since Adelson has already benefited from a close relationship with Laxalt, might he be hoping for a Justice Tao to look out for his best interests on the Nevada Supreme Court?

Justice: another reason why your vote matters
Nevada Supreme Court Justices

As we can see above, voters have some big decisions to make regarding the state’s highest court. And keep in mind that this Court itself will eventually make some big decisions that will affect our communities. Who do we want to make these decisions, and how do we want our courts to make these decisions?

Mail-in (or absentee) ballots have already begun to arrive in mailboxes, and in-person early voting begins this Saturday (and continues through November 2). The final day of voting is November 6. 

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