What was your reaction when you were assigned the O.J. Simpson armed robbery and kidnapping case in 2008?
I wasn’t intimidated by it. I wasn’t scared about it. My goal was to treat it as much like any other case as I could. I was very hands-on with the preparation of everything. I had regular meetings with security, courthouse staff, the clerk’s office and the jail. We tried to plan out everything, and I worked closely with the Court TV folks who were there.
Could you have refused it?
It’s very difficult for a judge not to take an assignment, because you want the randomness. You don’t want judges turning down work; that sets a bad precedent. When there are conflicts, you need to be able to articulate why you can’t be able to take a particular case. So, no, I’m not sure I could have turned it down, and I’m not the kind of person who would have turned it down.
Did you follow Simpson’s double-murder trial in California in 1995?
Absolutely. I had followed the first O.J. trial. My husband [former Las Vegas Councilman/current District Attorney Steve Wolfson] and I are both lawyers, we were interested in the process and we of course would follow high-profile cases. So it was easy to see what potentially could be as a result of getting this assignment.
What did you learn from it?
Not losing control of my courtroom to the lawyers was the biggest lesson—making sure I was in charge. The lawyers, when they appealed Simpson’s guilty verdict in Clark County, sent video of me to the Nevada Supreme Court, because [they said] I was just so mean to them. I wasn’t mean; I was in control. … They knew I was that way from the first time I got assigned that case. I would have the lawyers in to do regular status checks, so that I could keep them on the schedule. I had to continue it once, but I wanted to hold firm to that trial date. So they got to know my personality long before the trial.
What did you think when you saw O.J. for the first time.
I couldn’t have cared less about O.J .Simpson. I was not a USC fan. I was not a football fan. There was no [sense of being] star struck. He was a man who was a defendant. He happened to be high-profile, but that had no impact on me at all.
What were your primary concerns in the Simpson case here?
Not in any particular order, I wanted it to run smoothly. I wanted to keep in control of my courtroom. I wanted the defendants to receive a fair trial. I wanted to do a good job. I didn’t want to embarrass myself or the State of Nevada.
What challenges came up that you didn’t anticipate?
The first day of the trial, a lawyer representing the Las Vegas Review-Journal wanted me to release the juror questionnaires. I said no, they appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court, the decision was reversed and I had to release the questionnaires. But it was not until after the trial was over because I was concerned about protecting the identity of the jurors. … We took a break to see if the case could be negotiated. I believed, I still believe, a resolution was offered to both defendants and it was turned down. It would have resulted in Simpson spending significantly less time in prison.
You were a television journalist before you went to law school. How did that experience help you deal with the Saturday Night Live parodies and jokes in Jay Leno’s monologue?
I laughed. When you’re involved in a high-profile case, you’re going to be subject to a lot of things like that, a lot of criticism. You have to put yourself in a bubble and not pay attention and not look at anything anybody is saying about you. So the funny stuff was fine, but I never read the paper, I didn’t read the blogs—I just put myself in my little bubble and kept pressing on.
Was there a point in the trial when you knew how the jury was going to go?
Absolutely not. But the evidence was overwhelming. People with whom O.J. surrounded himself audiotaped the preparation of this caper; the casino had video of them walking in; the casino had video of them walking out; there was someone who audiotaped the events in the room; there was audiotape of the postmortem (I call it) of the event. The jury’s going to do whatever the jury’s going to do. I can’t and I don’t predict what they’re going to do. In my time as a judge I saw juries do things that I did not expect. That’s just the nature of the system.
Were you more surprised at the California verdict or the verdict in your courtroom?
I was not surprised at the verdict in my courtroom. And I can’t say whether I was surprised or not at the verdict in California. There were reasons for why each happened the way it did.
At the sentencing, you memorably asked whether Simpson was “arrogant, ignorant or both. … I got the answer, and it was both.” Did you plan to say that?
As a reporter, I was always challenged to come up with a sound bite, and it used to aggravate me when judges or public officials would just go on and on. So I always tried to come up with a sound bite. I think it was organic. I thought about some things, and it just happened naturally—but it was perfect! It captured him perfectly. It kinda exploded after that. … I got crazy letters. I got people who hated me, people who loved me. I still have people who hug me, and who want to shake my hand and thank me. It’s still going on.
Is he going to walk out of prison?
Oh, absolutely, he’s going to get out. He was sentenced in 2008 and I gave him nine years on the bottom so I think he’s got about three more years left. 2017 is when he’s looking to get out. Unless of course you see the Enquirer in the grocery store and know he is dying. He must have a direct contact with somebody at the Enquirer, because every couple of months I walk through the grocery story and I see that’s he’s dying or that he has a tumor or whatever. It’s funny there’s some O.J. headline in that paper, if I can call it a paper.
What was your takeaway from working for one season on Swift Justice?
Because I was off the bench, when the position of district attorney became available, my husband was able to apply. If I had been on the bench, it would have been a lot more difficult [for him] because I did so much criminal work, particularly in the specialty courts. I don’t know if it would have been able to happen. It was very fortuitous. Life has a very interesting way of working out.
How did you balance education and entertainment on Swift Justice?
Common sense. They certainly want the most dramatic cases, and I had producers who brought me some really interesting material to make it dramatic. If there was a chance to educate through that, I always took advantage of that, particularly if drugs and alcohol were involved, or domestic abuse. Those shows are extremely edited and so no matter what I did during the taping, I didn’t make the decision as to what would make it onto the show.
CSI has influenced public perception about forensic science. Do shows such as Swift Justice influence public perception about the court system?
Absolutely. What’s funny is all those cases are binding arbitrations—a bench trial in front of a judge. So there’s an adversarial process, but it’s directly among the people involved. It’s probably representative of the court that most people in this country have contact with—small claims court.
Is that dangerous?
No. They see what an adversarial process is like. They see what a judge does. They understand that there’s going to be accountability. They understand there’s going to have to be some sort of evidence that’s going to have to help sustain a win. So there are some basic precepts that people can take from watching a program like that.
You now work with retired District Court Judge Gene Porter’s Private Trials, an alternative dispute-resolution firm. What does that entail?
We do mediations, arbitrations, mock trials and private trials. It’s an economical, quick way to get a resolution to a case. Before they file a lawsuit, people come in because they ask themselves, “Wow. There might be some issues. I don’t know if I want to spend the money. I don’t know if I should invest the time. So let’s see if I can get it resolved.” Then there are ones who have been going a while, there’s been some discovery and something has popped up that’s a red flag. Whether it’s good for one side or the other, the light goes off and it’s time to get it resolved. Then there are ones who are dug in for years, they’re getting ready to go to trial and maybe they should get this resolved because there’s some risk. Let’s see if we can get what we need out of it instead of taking the risk, going to trial and letting eight strangers make the decision.
What was your second most fascinating case as a district court judge?
It was a civil case involving a high-tech scavenger hunt in 2006. They were dropping clues out of helicopters into dry lakebeds and putting clues on top of the Stratosphere tower. One of the clues led to an abandoned mine, and [on the hunt] a man was severely injured, paralyzed from the neck down. He sued the people who put the hunt together. The jury found for the defendant. When he went into the mine he didn’t have a light, and there was a definite “no, don’t go in there” [sign posted]. …
The subject matter was new to me. At the time, it was a high-tech and very sophisticated game. We heard testimony about the planning and the technology that the participants used as well as how the scavenger hunt was conducted. It is my understanding that some of the people involved are now in top spots in some of the biggest tech companies in the world.
What law on the Nevada books would you change tomorrow?
I would make DUI laws tougher. I ran the felony DUI court where if you got two misdemeanor convictions and you were going to have your third that was a mandatory felony and mandatory prison—there was no probation. I saw people have many, many misdemeanor cases that either got negotiated or whatever. But with the death and destruction on our roads with people who are under the influence, there needs to be harsher penalties that might deter some of what has been going on. I sat through sentences where parents brought me the urn of their daughter and sat it in front of me, telling me about the impact of her death. I saw pictures of people’s mangled bodies, and it’s just so senseless. It can be prevented so easily, and it’s so tragic that people don’t realize that it doesn’t take a lot of alcohol to put you under the influence and impair your ability to drive. The penalties need to be harsher all the way down the line.
What’s better—appointing or electing judges?
I am a proponent of electing judges. That allows people to start on a level playing field. The appointment process is riddled with as much politics and behind-the- scenes activity that the public doesn’t see. It’s sad that the public is not as informed as they should be. There are efforts to try to get people informed. Electing judges is not foolproof, and there have been some outcomes that have been not so good. But the appointment process eliminates a lot of people’s chances to become judges who might make very fine judges. Unless you have the political contacts, the political clout, the opportunity would pass you by.
What was the best excuse you heard to get out of jury duty?
Oh, my God! That was one of my biggest pet peeves. … I didn’t tolerate excuses very well, but there was a man who said he was psychic. He told us he knew he was going to get off [the jury], and I think I had to leave the bench because I was going to laugh out loud. The whole place erupted, and it was during a serious murder trial. His prediction came true.