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George Knapp: Judge Vega says she’s sorry

<p>George Knapp</p>

George Knapp

It might not sound like a public reprimand is much of a penalty for District Judge Valerie Vega in light of the “clear and convincing evidence” that she repeatedly violated judicial canons, but it is very serious stuff for a sitting judge. In all likelihood, it means she will never be able to win re-election, even if she chose to run again in 2014. Opponents would be able to relentlessly pummel Vega with her own admission of guilt, and with those unforgettable TV images of her sitting in the crowd at a sporting event. It’s no wonder that potential opponents are already lining up to take a shot at her seat.

The story first surfaced two years ago when my KLAS Channel 8 colleague Colleen McCarty got a tip that Judge Vega had been ducking out of a murder trial so she could attend her daughter’s soccer games. Sure enough, when Colleen popped over to the soccer field one afternoon to see for herself, there was Vega, cheering on her child from the grandstand. We later learned that Vega had put the trial on hold not once, not twice, but six times so she could attend soccer games.

She compounded the problem when she kept the jury in the same trial deliberating a verdict until 7 a.m. because she needed to get out of town to start her vacation. From the bench, she scolded the attorneys for not heeding her warnings to wrap things up, as if something as insignificant as a murder trial should ever interfere with her downtime. When confronted with the evidence, Vegas haughtily dismissed the whole thing, saying she had done nothing wrong whatsoever, and chiding McCarty in the pages of the R-J for what was deemed “gotcha journalism.”

I’m guessing her opinion of gotcha journalism hasn’t improved much since then. The Vega who appeared this week in front of Nevada’s Judicial Discipline Commission was contrite, repentant and so emotional she had trouble reading the short statement she had prepared. Vega took full responsibility, called it a learning experience and vowed that it would never happen again. From where I sat, the judge sure sounded sincere. She had to choke back her tears a couple of times, and everyone in the room felt her pain.

But that’s as far as my sympathy goes.

Vega could have played this differently. She could have asked another judge to cover for her during jury deliberations — it happens all the time. Her decision to argue that she regularly works more than 40 hours a week as an explanation for repeatedly halting a murder trial to accommodate her daughter’s soccer schedule fell flat. I mean, who doesn’t work 40 hours or more per week? In fact, for a lot of people (including some of her fellow jurists and courthouse staffers) a mere 40-hour work week sounds pretty sweet.

The word at the courthouse is that Vega wanted to fight to the bitter end, contest every accusation, prove that the murder defendant got a fair trial and on and on, but that such a defense would have cost her $50,000 or more. (Her attorney, Jim Jimmerson, is highly regarded, and charges accordingly.) But there was a pretty solid chance the result would have been the same.

Jimmerson told me his client has not decided yet whether to seek re-election in 2014, but he and Vega know it would be a brutal campaign and that she would have to relive this chapter all over again. As mentioned, there are already a handful of lawyers in town who are thinking of jumping into the race. And the impact of this case has already registered with other judges, who are taking pains to make sure there are no trials scheduled anywhere near planned vacations.

As Judge Vega said, she’s had a relatively unblemished record up to this point. My guess is that she figured she could get away with it because there is so little oversight of sitting judges. Most of our judges are honest and work pretty hard. (In light of the monstrous caseloads most of them face, they have to work hard.) But over the years, there have been some truly egregious characters wearing black robes. One very popular judge worked until noon every day, then left to begin an afternoon of bar-hopping. He followed the same pattern for years. The late Jeff Sobel stopped coming to work altogether, saying he could do the job from home. Another judge routinely presided over cases via telephone. A few have been known to openly solicit campaign contributions from lawyers during sidebar conversations while cases were being heard, which is damned close to outright extortion. A few sitting judges are essentially owned by the law firms that ponied up the money to fund their entire campaigns. And then there’s the whole Elizabeth Halverson chapter, but let’s not go there.

The commission agreed that a public reprimand was appropriate punishment, and I agree. She admitted her mistakes, apologized for them, and vowed to never let them happen again. For now, we should take her at her word. The final reckoning in this sad chapter will arrive next year, when district court judges are judged by the voters.

TEACHERS LAMENT

Several local schoolteachers have written to me to complain about the cold-hearted bureaucrats at the Clark County School District who have slashed teacher salaries at the same time the health benefits program appears ready to collapse. The teachers have every right to be ticked off and feel betrayed. An arbitrator’s decision means the miniscule pay raises they were awarded previously have been rescinded. It also means that merit increases earned by some teachers because they continued their educations (and thus, their qualifications) have also been rescinded. Teachers not only lose their raises, they now face bills for the student loans they incurred to better their careers. It stinks.

But my response is that their anger is misplaced. CCSD bosses can’t print their own money. They have to juggle the finances they have, and — as we know — Nevada is miserly when it comes to support for education. Spending per-pupil in CCSD is pathetically low compared to elsewhere. The reason is that Nevadans prefer rock-bottom tax rates, even if it means a piss-poor education system. Money alone doesn’t mean success in schools, but you can be pretty sure that a lack of money guarantees failure. Our lawmakers have shown year after year that they lack the guts to enact a more stable tax system and to fund schools at a competitive level. Instead, they issue proclamations about how important education is, then a few of them go into a back room and cobble together a crappy hodgepodge of temporary solutions, declare victory and go home. The can gets kicked a little farther down the road. The stage is set for it to happen again this year.

Nevada is still waiting for the promised bonanza of new companies and jobs that supposedly flourish where taxes are low. Any day now, the caravan of corporations will be crossing the state line to take advantage of tax rates that are lower than in any of our neighboring states.

Right?

Any day now.

Good companies with good jobs don’t move to states with crappy education systems, no matter how low the tax rates might be. Ask any executive at any successful company, and they will tell you the same thing. If teachers want to be mad at someone, they should be mad at our weak-kneed elected officials — and at their miserly neighbors, who somehow think government services grow on trees.

GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8. Reach him at gknapp@klastv.com.