Sample ballots are in the mail for the June 12 primary election. Six candidates are vying for the chance to become Mesquite's new Justice of the Peace. Ron Dodd, who is also the Mesquite Municipal Judge, is stepping down from that position after 14 years. He'll retire from both benches at the end of the year.
The Mesquite Citizen Journal discussed the Justice of the Peace duties and responsibilities with Dodd and interviewed the candidates campaigning for the position. The top two vote-getters on June 12 will advance to the General Election in November.
The Justice of the Peace, commonly called JP, is a separate position from the Municipal Judgeship, even though Dodd has fulfilled both. The Judge hears traffic and misdemeanor cases while the JP presides over civil disagreements, small claims up to $7,500, and court trials involving sums up to $10,000. The JP also serves as the first rung of the ladder in criminal cases involving felony charges.
As the potential initial entry point in a criminal case, the Mesquite JP would begin proceedings in felony cases through the plea arraignment process on behalf of the accused. Then the case would proceed to a preliminary hearing in Las Vegas and move into the district courts.
Whomever fills the JP position is an employee of Clark County while the Municipal Judge is an employee of the City of Mesquite. Several years ago the Mesquite City Council changed the basic requirements of the Judgeship to require the incumbent to have a law degree.
The JP position only requires a high school diploma. There is no requirement to have any legal training, a law degree, or to have passed the Nevada State Bar exam.
Dodd, who does not have a law degree but has had legal training, says the most important requirement for the JP position is having a firm understanding of the law and to use good judgment when applying the law to cases under review.
He also says that while it's good to have some experience at handling legal cases, it's not required for the Bench. "There aren't very many classes in law school that teach you how to be a judge," Dodd remarked.
While he has filled both positions, he doesn't see a problem having different people in the positions. "The responsibilities are completely separate. It has been convenient at times for me to handle both positions though."
Dodd also says both positions are basically part-time. (Clarification, May 25: Judge Dodd requested a clarification/correction regarding the amount of time spent on each position. "I didn't say these were part-time positions. I spend whatever time is necessary to meet the needs and requirements of the jobs. If the Police need me on the weekend, I work on the weekends plus full-time during the week," Dodd clarified.)
While he wouldn't say what he currently earns as Justice of the Peace, or what the pay will be for whomever wins the election in November, he said that he started at about $50,000 a year when he won the position in 1998.
In his role as Mesquite Justice of the Peace, Dodd works extensively with the Clark County District Attorney's office, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Jail, the Clark County Probation Department, and the Juvenile Probation Department. The same will be expected of his replacement.
The following is a synopsis of interviews conducted by the Mesquite Citizen Journal with each candidate running for the Justice of the Peace.
She graduated from Seattle University School of Law in May, 2011. Now Kryztal Alvizo is running for Mesquite's Justice of the Peace in June's primary election.
"I grew up here in Mesquite and now I want to apply my skills to help the community," Alvizo said to explain why she wants the JP's position.
"I think I can be a fair and equitable judge. I think I would be an effective gatekeeper to enforce the laws as they are written by the State Legislature. I would be competent, unbiased, and fair," she remarked.
Alvizo is currently studying for the Bar Exam in California. "If I'm elected, I will take the Nevada State Bar exam as well," she said.
She served with the Seattle University Art Clinic as an intern while attending law school. She helped artists review contracts and trademark and copyright issues.
She also worked with the Northwest Justice project concentrating on family law and labor law. She also argued a couple cases in court while serving her internship.
"Because the law is so complex, I think it's important that the Justice of the Peace have a law degree. It's very difficult for a lay person to understand all the legalese. Someone with a degree can better understand the process," Alvizo said.
"If Mesquite continues to grow, I think it will be essential for the JP to have a law degree."
"If the Mesquite City Council decides it's better to have two judges that's okay. The people of Mesquite can decide that through the Council," she said.
She also thinks that working with the juvenile probation department would be an interesting experience. "I'd like to help them make changes for the better. I would like to help rehabilitate kids so they don't go further down the wrong path."
Explaining that she ran for the Justice of the Peace six years ago, "I think I would be a good judge. I practiced law for quite some time after I finished law school. I practiced both criminal and civil law. What I learned is that if you have the power and you have the money, you win. It doesn't matter what the law says. And that broke my heart because I saw my clients devastated by the judicial system.
"But, if I were a judge, I would follow the law. I would be a really good judge because I know the law. I would be fair.
She received her law degree in 1992. She lives in Mesquite "most of the time" having moved here 11 years ago. "If I get a chance to leave and don't have any other pressing matters, we have a cabin in Colorado."
Beausoleil served as Ms. Senior Nevada for one year.
"I understand very well the distinction between the standard of proof required, which for civil cases is a preponderance of evidence. The criminal side has a much higher standard for burden of proof which is beyond a reasonable doubt. People without a law degree may not understand the difference."
"I firmly believe there needs to be two different judges in the two Mesquite courts. It avoids conflicts of interest and there are many that arise, Beausoleil commented. "And, it prevents double-dipping [in compensation] because both positions are part-time. The whole thing doesn't amount to a full-time job. It's ludicrous to take two salaries. It's also important to maintain the independence of the two courts. Records should not be opened to those dealing with the two different courts. I understand that in the past they have been. The police can come in and shuffle through the records whether it's a civil case or a criminal case. That's a conflict. Those things should be kept separate and distinct."
"One judge tends to make the law whether it's valid or not because it's very expensive to challenge that," she said, confirming her belief in having two judges serving Mesquite.
"If I were elected to this position I would not take the Municipal Court Judge's position. I really believe they need to be separate and independent."
She added that, "I would not have a problem dealing with other legal entities because before I practiced law I was a psychologist working with kids and families. I'd like to see a diversion program established in Mesquite where all these kids wouldn't have records. Maybe we could make a difference before they get into some really serious trouble as adults."
"I think when people come to court they have a right to be heard. It's my understanding that hasn't always happened.
"I was approached by some people in the Court system that asked me to consider running for the Justice of the Peace position," Bill Berrett said. "I was a prosecutor that supervised outlying areas of Clark County and covered Mesquite so I've been familiar with the town for many years. I think I have a good feel of the issues."
He explained that some of the issues involve coordinating cases between the District Attorney's office and the Mesquite Police Department. "Even after I retired from the DA's office I still practiced law and covered cases in the local court."
Berrett was a former Clark County Chief Deputy District Attorney and spent over 30 years practicing law. He moved to Mesquite in December 2011. "I'm familiar with a lot of the bad guys and those who need attention from the court system."
He doesn't think it's mandatory for the JP to have a law degree. However, "quite honestly, when there's an ugly case, it would probably
go through the District Attorney's office to the Grand Jury rather than through the Justice of the Peace. The law has gotten so much more complex, even for lawyers. You almost have to be an attorney. The Judge has to be careful about how things are phrased in court so that cases are prosecuted correctly."
Berrett thinks it's better to have one person fill both the Municipal Judge position and the JP position "simply because the facility has one Judge's chambers. But sometimes cases overlap and it would be better to have one Judge do both. I would seek the position of Mesquite Municipal Judge if I were elected as Justice of the Peace."
"There's quite a bit involved in the legal process," he said when discussing the necessary interaction between the JP and other Las Vegas agencies involved in prosecuting cases.
"The big issue for Mesquite is identifying the bad guys and making sure they get treated accordingly."
"On one hand the court is separate from the probation department," he said when explaining how he would approach juvenile cases. "Once the Judge turns it over to probation, he's done unless there's some kind of violation that may bring it back to the court."
"One of the things we recognized when supervising the outlying jurisdiction from the DA's office is that a lot of the Judges know who the bad guys are more so than the District Attorney does. The Judge is influential in how the DA handles the cases. Sometimes the Judge may know the defendant on a personal level. You have to be careful with the ethical situation," he explained.
"I was approached by some friends who encouraged me to run for Justice of the Peace," Theron Jensen explained. "I thought I could offer something of value to the community in the position."
"I attended the Boyd School of Law at UNLV for a couple of semesters. I do have an understanding of the background of law. I am not an attorney nor do I believe an attorney may be best suited to fill the position necessarily. What is required in Justice Court, because it is the people's Court, isn't just a reading of the law. It requires an understanding of people and the ability to understand circumstances and apply the standards within the bounds of the law. While we are bound by the law, it does give us some latitude to work."
Jensen added, "I think because of my experience in life and in the community and my dealings with people, I have an ability to judge fairly and reflect some give and take when necessary to let justice prevail."
"I don't see an advantage or disadvantage either way for having two different judges or having one person fill both positions. I think it's a mistake for the Mesquite City Council to have set a requirement for the Municipal Judge to hold a law degree. I wouldn't be seeking the other position [if elected as JP]. They are both part-time positions."
In terms of dealing with the juvenile probation department, "when you are helping kids find their way in life, you've got to hold their feet to the fire. Kids today get off the hook too easily sometimes. I'm not a hardliner. But at the same time I believe that when a direction is set, that direction needs to be followed. They need to get up, toe the line, and honor commitments they've made with the court."
"We see too much punitive judicial philosophy today; a philosophy of sheer punishment. I have a different philosophy, especially in a small community like this. It's more of 'restorative' justice. It's two-fold. Not only should the person who's damaged by the crime be restored to their fullness, but the person who commits the crime should be restored to a life of following the law."
Jensen also explained that "Temporary restraining orders, protecting people from abuse, is a very important issue with the Justice of the Peace, especially with women and abusive spouses and with children. Protecting the innocent has to be addressed by the JP. My approach is to be certain that those persons who my be subject to physical harm would be protected."
"My not being an attorney and not being involved in the justice system is a positive in the sense that it doesn't matter who appears before me, or who represents them, I won't be biased by that because I don't have a familiarity or contact with those people. That eliminates the potential of bias."
Having been the Mesquite Township Constable for 17 years, Thurston feels that makes him familiar with "what the Justice of the Peace does. I work for the Court and serve the legal documents. That's how I'm familiar with what the Judge does. I feel I have the experience about what the papers are and that's why I feel qualified."
"A lot of people feel that you have to have a law degree. I don't believe that. As long as you can read and write, and be able to understand the Nevada Revised Statues, that's good. I've had to review the NRS for the documents I've served. I do very well at learning how to do things on the job," Thurston explained.
Thurston has been a full-time resident of Mesquite since 1987.
Because he doesn't have a law degree he would not be eligible to serve as the Mesquite Municipal Judge. "When I first became Constable we had two different judges. I don't have a problem with that. It can go either way. I can see benefits and disadvantages with both ways. If the City Council allowed it, I would like to look at filling both positions."
Explaining that, as Constable, he works with the Clark County DA's office serving papers for them, he thinks he would have a good relationship with that office.
He says his rulings would be based on evidence brought before the court. "I'm impressed with how Judge Dodd handles cases involving young people. If a kid is doing good in school and gets a speeding ticket, he gives them a break the first time. But he lets them know that if they come back in again, they'll be looking at a hard sentence. That gives them a wake-up call."
"I think serving as the Justice of the Peace will be a new learning experience and something I will do well at," Thurston concluded.
As Deputy Mesquite City Attorney, Ryan Toone is quite familiar with the Mesquite Municipal Judge and Mesquite Justice of the Peace positions.
"I enjoy working in the legal system. I was taught that you should look for opportunities to provide the most service that you can to the community. I believe I can use my experience and background to best serve the community as Justice of the Peace," Toone said as he explained why he is running for election to the JP's position.
He received his law degree with cum laude honors from the University of Minnesota. He worked for a law firm in Las Vegas and passed the Nevada Bar Exam. In 2008 he accepted his current position with the City of Mesquite. He is primarily responsible for prosecuting criminal misdemeanor cases for the City, working closely with the Police Department. He handles cases through both the Mesquite Municipal Court and District Court in Las Vegas.
"I think there's a lot of benefits to having a law degree for the JP position. There will be hearings with other attorneys present who will be presenting their client's case. The JP will have to make a ruling on their arguments. Having the legal background will help me make an appropriate and fair ruling."
"You have to look at the facts as they are presented. You have to help people get the justice they deserve and move on with their lives.
He thinks that having one person fill both positions as the JP and the Municipal Judge is appropriate for a town the size of Mesquite. "The caseload for the JP is not enough to keep him or her busy on a fulltime basis. Judge Dodd has successfully managed both dockets. If the person has the knowledge and background it may make sense to have one person do both jobs. It's up to the City Council to appoint the Municipal Judge.
"If I were elected as Justice of the Peace, I would be interested in being considered for the Municipal Judge position."
In his current position he's worked extensively with the local police department and the Clark County District Attorney's office. "You have to be fair and impartial while also being open and available."
"Once you hear the facts of a case, you may have to come up with a sentence that will help that person. An overarching principle that I think needs to come into play is to help the person get on the right track so they can move on with their life and they can do good things and not find themselves back in the system."