How Public Defenders Rocked Las Vegas Judge Elections

Community organizing in Nevada’s Clark County helped judicial candidates "flip the bench" to challenge cash bail and mass incarceration.

Sam Mellins   |    December 21, 2020

Belinda T. Harris

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

Community organizing in Nevada’s Clark County helped judicial candidates “flip the bench” to challenge cash bail and mass incarceration.

When Christy Craig started working at the public defender’s office in Clark County, Nevada, in 1998, she didn’t plan to ever run for judge. “I knew that was my gig,” Craig said. “I couldn’t have been happier to be there.” Since then, Craig has represented thousands of defendants and scored landmark wins in suits against the State on issues of correctional mental health and cash bail

But soon Craig will be leaving the public defender’s office to become a judge on the Eighth Judicial District Court, the criminal and civil court of Clark County, which includes the Las Vegas metro area. 

It was a colleague who gave her the idea to seek election last January. “I was sitting in my office and I was complaining about the bench,” Craig said. Suddenly Belinda Harris, a public defender who had already announced her candidacy for a judgeship, shouted from her office: “Well, shut up and run!” 

So Craig entered the race and won on Nov. 3—alongside Harris and five other public defenders.

These seven public defenders, all women, many women of color, are now set to become judges in January. Harris is heading to the North Las Vegas Justice Court; the others were elected to the Eighth Judicial District Court, despite many being significantly outraised by their opponents

The results will alter Clark County’s political landscape, strengthening the hand of those who want to change practices that fuel mass incarceration. Several of the public defenders described their candidacies as an effort to “balance” the courts, as judgeships in Clark County have historically been dominated by former prosecutors, as is often the case nationwide

Organizers interested in criminal justice reform pushed similar efforts to “flip the bench” this year in other parts of the country, including New Orleans and Hamilton County (Cincinnati), Ohio, where public defenders and others with experience representing marginalized people successfully sought judicial seats.

“I hope that it means that we are able to make the system more fair,” said public defender and judge-elect Erika Ballou, who was endorsed by Senator Bernie Sanders. “I understand that a lot of times people who are in the system have done something wrong, but that shouldn’t ruin their life. It shouldn’t define everything.”

Judges have immense power over defendants’ lives and over the direction of the criminal legal system as a whole. From setting bail amounts to meting out sentences, judges make the choices that either maintain the status quo or chart alternatives to locking people up.

But judges depend on collaboration with prosecutors, and the public defenders are already facing backlash before even taking the bench. Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson, who in the past has resisted reform proposals to end cash bail and the death penalty, called for Nevada to move to replace judicial elections with appointments in late November. Wolfson raised the issue in direct response to the public defenders winning judicial elections. 

Still, local advocates hope that the elections will be part of a growing momentum for criminal justice reform that has been building in Nevada.

Over the last two years, Nevada has seen numerous changes to its criminal legal system. In 2019, the state legislature passed laws shortening sentences for many nonviolent offenses, increasing access to diversion programs, re-enfranchising formerly incarcerated individuals, providing monetary compensation for the wrongly incarcerated, and banning private prisons. In September 2019, Craig was part of a team that brought Valdez-Jimenez v. Eighth Judicial District Court before the Nevada Supreme Court. The court’s decision in April of this year flipped cash bail on its head, placing the burden on prosecutors to prove that a defendant should be held on bail, rather than asking defendants to prove that they should be released. 

The Valdez-Jimenez ruling “basically says that the standard way of doing cash bail in Nevada for decades is blatantly unconstitutional,” said Alec Karakatsanis, executive director of Civil Rights Corps, which worked with the public defender’s office on the case. “If the state wants to jail someone prior to trial because it believes that the person poses some kind of a danger, they actually have to put on evidence in a rigorous legal proceeding.”

Yet the discretion of individual judges remains extremely important. “Even under those standards, judges can just say, ‘I’m looking at the evidence and I find that the person is a danger to the community,’ and they can just repeat those words without genuinely exercising real thought,” Karakatsanis added.

Newly elected judge Belinda Harris said she plans to treat the Valdez-Jimenez standards seriously, though she added she would set bail if she deemed it absolutely necessary. “I don’t think that people’s freedoms should be tied to whether they can make bail or not,” Harris said. 

Harris was elected judge of the Justice Court of North Las Vegas, where the initial stages of a criminal proceeding take place, including the decision on whether to set bail in the vast majority of criminal cases. That decision will be fully within Harris’s discretion.

Harris was also the first Black judge elected without first being appointed in North Las Vegas, which has a large Black population compared to the rest of Clark County. “I think there’s something to be said that most of the clients that are being serviced look like me,” Harris said. “We’re diversifying the bench.” Most of the public defenders recently elected as judges—Harris, Ballou, Monica Trujillo, Jasmin Lilly-Spells, and Dee Butler—are women of color, a historically underrepresented group on the Nevada bench.

Ballou said that she hopes the newly elected judges will be able to move the Clark County justice system toward a rehabilitative model of criminal justice. That could entail finding alternatives to incarceration.

“Maybe we’ll be able to get people the help they need rather than sending them to prison, which just warehouses them, and doesn’t help them in any way to come out and not do this again,” she said. “Do they need drug help? Is it unresolved trauma? Can we give people some mental health counseling? Can we do something so that this cycle does not continue? That’s what I hope.”

Scott Coffee, a public defender, emphasized that beyond specific policy changes, the new judges’ experience as public defenders could translate into more compassion in court proceedings. “Because a lot of these new candidates have dealt with people accused of crimes one on one, they know they’re human beings,” he said. 

“They understand the difficulties,” Coffee added. “It’s easy for me to get to the courthouse, but if you’re homeless, living eight miles from the courthouse, making an 8 o’clock court appearance isn’t always the easiest thing to do.” 

“The biggest change that you’ll see come to the bench is that there’s going to be more empathy for the struggles that people face, particularly when they’re poor,” Coffee said.

Without big fundraising hauls, the candidates relied on grassroots organizing to educate and turn out voters. Organizations working in communities affected by poverty and the criminal legal system played a significant role in pushing the public defenders to victory. 

Most of the candidates were outraised by their opponents several times over. Special Public Defender Monica Trujillo was victorious despite raising only $77,000 to her opponent’s more than $400,000, including $75,000 of his own money, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported. Craig was outraised by more than a factor of 25, raising only $14,000 to her opponent’s $360,000. Ballou raised no money at all. One of the candidates did receive significant outside help; Carli Kierny was supported by radio ads paid for by a PAC largely funded by megadonors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, which mostly supported conservative-leaning candidates.

The candidates attributed their victories in the face of such fundraising gaps to their longtime presence in the communities they serve. “I’ve been doing things in the community for the 17 years that I’ve lived here,” Ballou said, noting her work with organizations including community theaters and Planned Parenthood. “I know a lot of people, people know who I am.”

Harris also said that her roots and longtime presence in North Las Vegas were helpful. “It was really a grassroots, community effort,” she said of her campaign. “I’m down on the ground, you know? I’m at the cookout, I’m at the neighborhood barbecue.”

Harris said she received support from her clients at the public defender’s office. “There would be times that I would meet a new client, and they’d say ‘You’re running for judge, my whole family is gonna vote for you!’” 

The candidates also benefited from the work of local grassroots organizations such as Mi Familia Vota Nevada and the anti-incarceration network Mass Liberation Nevada. MLN mobilized dozens of volunteers for phone banks and canvasses that reached thousands of voters, held video forums to educate voters and introduce them to the judicial candidates, and organized with incarcerated individuals to get them to encourage family members to vote. 

Leslie Turner, an MLN organizer and formerly incarcerated person, said the group’s efforts were particularly important because of the effect that the criminal legal system has on the group’s core constituency. 

“We have a higher chance of actually being in court in front of some of these judges, so it’s important that we’re putting people on the bench that understand our perspective, understand why we’re saying Black Lives Matter … and all of the factors that come into play when somebody might end up in the courtroom,” Turner said.

Much of MLN’s organizing centered on reaching out to formerly incarcerated people. In 2019, Nevada adopted a law restoring the voting rights of tens of thousands of people with felony convictions; all citizens who are not in prison can now vote. 

“That garnered a whole new base of voters,” said Jagada Chambers, an organizing fellow with MLN who is formerly incarcerated.

Many formerly incarcerated people were initially unaware that they had become able to vote, making grassroots outreach—some of which stalled under the COVID-19 pandemic—essential. 

“I literally had to pull out the bill, the paperwork, and go over it, and be like ‘You actually can vote, for real,’” Turner said. “It was really empowering.”

The fact that many of the candidates were participants or legal observers at Black Lives Matter protests over the summer was helpful in mobilizing volunteers. A frequent recruitment pitch was that “these are the same lawyers that are out in the streets supporting us and this movement, so we need to support them,” Turner said. 

Since the Nov. 3 elections, DA Wolfson has taken issue with the incoming wave of judges.

“In past elections, there was a greater correlation between how much effort a candidate put into the campaign and the result—a more direct relationship between efforts and results of fundraising and who won,” Wolfson said, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He also raised doubts about some of the winning candidates’ qualifications.

Some public defenders criticized Wolfson’s comments. “That guy lives in a totally different world than 90 percent of our community,” said public defender John Piro. “It’s a crowd that’s not taking time to recognize that there’s systemic issues here with both poverty and racism that have affected our system.”

Wolfson’s office did not respond to multiple requests for further comment.

Fifteen political organizations also signed on to a statement from Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice (NACJ) denouncing Wolfson’s comments, including the Clark County Democratic Party, the Las Vegas NAACP, Mi Familia Vota Nevada, and the Las Vegas Democratic Socialists of America. The letter claimed that Wolfson’s commentary “ignores the greater value in a democracy of earned community reputations over access to finances,” and also, “denies the extensive professional qualifications of our newly elected judges.”

NACJ president Sarah Hawkins told The Appeal: Political Report that Wolfson’s remarks on fundraising “devalue members of historically marginalized communities, who cannot contribute financially to campaigns, who only have their votes.” 

“He didn’t complain [about electing judges] when prosecutors with law enforcement endorsements repeatedly ascended the bench over the past decade,” Hawkins added.

But Harris was unperturbed by Wolfson’s comments. “I just don’t pay him any mind, because as a judge, I’m just gonna look at what’s before me, and not his thoughts or opinions,” Harris said. “I ran my race. I had some DA colleagues … tell me I was gonna lose, but here I am.”