Judgment Days

Gary Davis, who once was the most creative judge in a town built on doing things differently, never did like to compromise. When he ran for his first political office in 1969 at age 21, his cousin told him, “The luckiest thing that could have happened in your life happened to you—you lost.” Davis didn’t stay lucky for long.

Eight years later, he was elected to the North Las Vegas City Council. The experience that followed made his cousin look like a genius. “I was one of five votes,” he says. “If you couldn’t get two other people to see it your way, no matter how right you felt something was, you couldn’t get it done. It was a life of compromise. I didn’t enjoy it.”

Davis wasn’t done with public life, though. In 1979, he won a municipal judgeship in North Las Vegas. This he liked much better: In court, he only needed one vote to do what he thought was best. As a 31-year-old judge, he still didn’t know what he couldn’t do, and he quickly became known for his unique style. Once, a defendant tried to avoid paying a fine by arguing that he needed the money to buy new shoes. “Well, I’ll make you a deal,” Davis said. “If the holes in your tennis shoes are bigger than the holes in the boots I’m wearing, I’ll let you go. But if they’re not, you need to just pay the fine and be quiet about it.” They compared holes, says Davis, “and the holes in my boots were bigger. Everybody got a good laugh, and he went ahead and paid his fine.”

Davis also won notoriety for making DUI offenders do public service while wearing clothes that clearly identified the crime. The creative sentencing was challenged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. “They said it was humiliating and embarrassing,” says Davis, “but the Supreme Court said, ‘Well, it’s tasteless, but it’s not illegal.’”

Not everyone appreciated his unorthodox style. In 1995, the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline charged Davis with a list of infractions ranging from borrowing money from court staff members and not repaying it quickly enough to playing inappropriate music like “Jailhouse Rock” to arraigned inmates.

Davis suddenly found himself out of a job. “It was just petty crap,” he says. “If I had known, I wouldn’t have done it.” He went back to work for the longtime family business, Davis Nursery. “I told my mom, I’ll work for you for six bucks an hour.”

Today, after nearly 60 years in business, Davis Nursery is preparing to close. “The last six years have been like driving off a cliff,” says Davis, now 62. “We should have locked our gates and left when we had money and assets.” He’s gotten used to setbacks, though, and he’s taking this last one in stride. “I never lived rich,” he says, “I’m one of those lucky guys: A hamburger makes me as happy as a steak.”

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