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The Strange Case of Jerry Tao

Jon Ralston
Jon Ralston

Attorney General Adam Laxalt knows how critical judges are to the system.

“You know, it’s like, until you get screwed by a judge, you don’t realize how important it is,” the state’s highest law enforcement officer said more than two years ago.

At the same time he wondered why donors don’t recognize that. “I’m always, like, ‘I don’t know why you spend so much on an Assemblyperson,’ the judge is more important,” he said.

After essentially arguing that campaign contributors should try to buy judges rather than lawmakers, Laxalt argued for a hybrid appointive/retention election system that many states have to try to ameliorate the problem.

The attorney general, ironically, was making this argument right before trying to persuade then-Gaming Control Board Chairman A.G. Burnett to interfere in a court case on behalf of the state’s most influential donor, Sheldon Adelson. (“I wanted to talk to you one-on-one about the Las Vegas Sands,” he told Burnett after pleading with him to meet clandestinely. That caused Burnett to record him and turn the tape over to the FBI, which declined to pursue charges, and later became the subject of a legislative hearing that proved something else Laxalt said that day: “You know, I mean the Assemblypeople don’t get anything actually done.”)

Laxalt’s attitude toward the judiciary has become relevant today as he has injected himself and his campaign team into a key race for the state Supreme Court, one that could tilt the balance of power to the right. Despite his putative concern for politics infecting the judiciary, Laxalt has endorsed a longtime Democrat who switched to become a nonpartisan right before fling, but is running as if he were a Republican.

The Strange Case of Jerry Tao, which sounds like the title of a Conan Doyle tale and would challenge all Holmesian logic, is one of the more confounding stories I have ever covered. I wrote about it last week:  A generally well-respected judge who once proudly advertised his service to Harry Reid filed without warning to run against District Judge Elissa Cadish and some minor contenders, was immediately embraced by Laxalt and his lackey, state Senate GOP Leader Michael Roberson, and hired campaign consulting firm J3Strategies which helped elect the attorney general and whose principal, Robert Uithoven, is part of Laxalt’s inner circle.

This is inarguably strange, and became more so after Tao put out campaign paraphernalia that sounded as if it came from a Heritage Foundation pamphlet: “Is the Court going to drift even further to the left, or can we change the direction? Do we want a Court that gets even more liberal, or can we make it one that follows the Constitution and believes in individual liberty?”

Tao’s website, as I have pointed out, also looks like something a conservative Republican – maybe J3Strategies saved money by using the same shibboleths it is using for Laxalt’s campaign for governor – would erect, touting his support for “school choice” and “supporting business, entrepreneurs and innovation.”

This is highly unusual, to put it mildly, for a judicial campaign. Sure, Cadish is known to be a Democrat and was blocked from a federal judgeship ostensibly because Sen. Dean Heller didn’t like an answer on guns she provided to a conservative group. And no one is naive enough to think politics does not permeate the judiciary, from the lowest levels to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But never in Nevada has it been so overt, never has it been so twisted, never has the top of the GOP ticket endorsed a high court candidate they probably barely know.

To his credit, Tao was very responsive to my inquiries last week.

The judge claimed he is asked about school choice all the time on the campaign trail and that the case has been decided by the high court. Of course that doesn’t explain why he should take a position at all, and it’s also not inconceivable that lawsuits could be filed if lawmakers attempt to fund Education Savings Accounts, which Laxalt has said he would propose as governor.

Tao also reminded me that he was appointed to the bench by Gov. Brian Sandoval, who is a Republican. And to be fair, Sandoval has endorsed Justice Lidia Stiglich in another race, although nowhere in that contest do you see the kind of frothing rhetoric Tao used in that missive.

As for the Laxerson endorsement, Tao told me: “Before I filed, like a lot of other potential candidates, I called around to ask a number of elected officials if they would endorse me. Some did, some did not. Attorney General Laxalt and Senator Roberson were two who did, and I’m glad to have their support.”

A long list, eh? Tao says he will add other endorsements to his website as they come in. I can’t wait to see how many Democratic elected officials will be on there.

Harry? Harry? Harry...?

It’s a natural question to wonder whether Adelson, who has previously shown more than a passing interest in influencing the judiciary, just as he does in other government bodies from Las Vegas to Carson City, cares about this race. And in another coincidence, Uithoven also lobbies for….Las Vegas Sands. We will know more when contribution reports are released soon.

(In one of the great ironies of the circular world of Nevada politics, 20 years ago future Rep. Shelley Berkley was caught on tape (!) when she worked for Adelson urging him to do favors for politicians and writing a memo to him to contribute to judges to garner influence. Team Adelson acted like Louis Renault in Rick’s casino at the time. And the two reporters who broke those stories – Jane Ann Morrison and yours truly – are the only ones to write this cycle about The Strange Case of Jerry Tao.)

I don’t actually question whether Tao is qualified to be on the high court. Unlike Cadish, he is on the rung right below the Supremes, and this is a natural next step up, no matter how he may have cynically submitted to being used by Team Laxalt to get where he wants to go.

The attorney general is, of course, correct that judges should be appointed, which would diminish the opportunity for someone to do exactly what he and his friends are doing this cycle. Of course, should he become governor, it is Laxalt himself who would be appointing those judges.

Disclosure: Shelley Berkley has donated to The Nevada Independent. You can see a full list of donors here.

Jon Ralston is the editor of The Nevada Independent. He has been covering Nevada politics for more than 30 years. Contact him at [email protected]. On Twitter: @ralstonreports


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