Bill that would require schooling for Fiore and others opposed by rural judges
A bill before Nevada lawmakers would mandate that justices of the peace in Nevada who are not members of the State Bar, such as former Las Vegas City Councilwoman Michele Fiore, now a Justice of the Peace in Pahrump, be required to pass a test intended for law students.
“My clients are always surprised when they learn they appeared in front of a Justice of the Peace who’s not an attorney,” testified Sen. Melanie Scheible, a Democrat and attorney by trade, and sponsor of Senate Bill 354, “They assume that justices of the peace are attorneys. They assume that the person presiding over their criminal case has already demonstrated some kind of knowledge of the law and a qualification to sit on the bench.”
Nevada has long allowed non-attorneys to be JPs and municipal judges, especially in rural areas, where bar members are scarce and desire to serve even scarcer, according to judges who testified in opposition to the measure.
“Even as Senator Scheible indicated, there’s no current judges that are causing concern,” observed Boulder City Judge Victor Miller, president of the Nevada Judges of Limited Jurisdiction, noting 40% of the organization’s members are not lawyers. “If there’s not a problem, why are we trying to find a solution? At any rate, I believe that this measure would seriously affect the access to justice throughout the state.”
The proposal comes just months after Fiore, who also served in the Nevada Legislature, won appointment to the Nye County Justice Court following her loss in the race for State Treasurer. She participated in votes on the Las Vegas City Council after she says she became a resident of Pahrump, and appears not to have lived in Nye County long enough to qualify for the appointment. Nye County officials have declined to comment.
Fiore is notorious for outbursts in the Nevada Assembly chambers and elsewhere, engaging in a physical altercation with a colleague, a variety of alleged ethical breaches, and admits she’s under investigation by the FBI. Her failure to make payroll tax deposits for employees of her now-defunct home care agency resulted in multiple Internal Revenue Service liens, which she says are paid.
Fiore has a high school degree, the only requirement for JPs in Nevada counties with 100,000 or less residents. Her name was never mentioned in the hearing.
Currently, only law students preparing for bar exams are permitted to take the test in question, the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE), administered by the National Conference of Bar Examiners, but Sen. Melanie Scheible is trying to change that.
Scheible, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says she’s in conversations with the Bar Examiners, in an effort to accommodate the provisions of the legislation.
Nevada does not require justices of the peace to be attorneys in counties with 100,000 or fewer residents. More than two dozen other states have similar provisions.
“Currently in Nevada, depending on the population in your township or county, your justice of the peace may not be an attorney,” testified law student Elliot Malin, who presented the bill with Scheible, and noted jurists who lack law degrees are making life-altering decisions. “Their only formal statutory education requirement is to hold a high school diploma.”
JPs hear criminal matters, traffic violations, small claims, evictions, and civil disputes up to $15,000. They also grant or deny protective orders for domestic violence, stalking, and harassment.
“Nevada is one of eight states that currently allows non-attorney justices of the peace to convict in certain criminal courts,” Malin noted, adding the process can raise Sixth Amendment concerns regarding the right to a fair trial for defendants. “Nevadans deserve to know that these are those that have the ability to make life altering decisions for them to understand legal ethics.”
All JPs attend Judicial College, regardless of bar status. But Malin says JPs are not required to prove via an exam that they retained the knowledge required to do their jobs.
Justice of the Peace Richard Glasson of Tahoe Justice Court in Stateline, testified he has not taken the MPRE, nor have several former State Supreme Court Justices.
“Many of us serve in rural communities who do not have an abundance or a single lawyer that wants to run for our job,” he told lawmakers.
“I think they’re resisting change and think it’s an affront, even to the point to say its unconstitutional, even though it’s explicitly permitted in the Constitution,” Malin told the Current when asked about the judicial reaction to possible legislative tinkering.
“We’re not going to find competent citizens to sit in our townships if they have this type of burden,” said Glasson. “This sudden intrusion into the way we’ve run our judiciary for the last 150 years is going to create chaos.
Correction: The original version of this story misidentified Judge Glasson’s jurisdiction.