Behind the robes

As Nevada’s Supreme Court made its decision on how the race in Congressional District 2 will be conducted, a couple of notes follow on the judiciary and politics.

Judicial appointments are political.  In 2005, Brian Sandoval became a federal judge. The senior congressional delegation member of the president’s party gets to make those choices—usually.  But Sen. John Ensign had yielded that choice for every fourth judicial appointment to his Democratic colleague, Harry Reid, who chose Sandoval, a Republican. The idea appears to have been that by taking a lifetime federal post, Sandoval wouldn’t run for office against Reid’s fellow Democrats. That didn’t quite work out.

But that was a district judgeship. Magistrate judges are another matter.  They are political in this sense: The U.S. district judges in a jurisdiction choose them.  Their job is to conduct misdemeanor trials and help with various civil actions and pre-trial work. They serve eight-year terms.

For 24 years—three terms—one of the magistrates here has been Lawrence Leavitt, who earned his spurs as a prosecutor for the federal government’s Organized Crime and Racketeering Strike Force. A good way to describe him is that he helped bring down the Chicago Mob’s control over several aspects of Las Vegas, including casinos and street crime.

Leavitt is retiring and the judges chose his successor, Cam Ferenbach, a partner at the state’s largest law firm, Lionel Sawyer & Collins, where he has been since 1980—except for a six-month leave of absence to be a public defender.

Permit the personal. I’ve worked with Judge Leavitt on We the People, a program that helps high school students learn about the Constitution, and I know people who have worked with him. I’ve spent some time with Ferenbach, who also—the news story didn’t mention this—has been a leader in promoting Nevada and Clark County Legal Services and was honored many times for his pro bono work.

We hear a lot about what is wrong with judges and lawyers. We should hear, too, about what’s right. Men such as Leavitt and Ferenbach, and their desire to serve, remind us that sometimes, some things go right.

Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada.