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Nevada judge abused authority, court rules

  Law Center  -   POSTED: 2007/12/29 19:42

The Nevada Supreme Court has ruled that Justice Nancy M. Saitta abused her authority when, as a Clark County District Court judge, she issued a gag order and sealed child-support proceedings involving a former judicial colleague.

Saitta did not meet requirements in state law when she sealed court records in 2006 involving former Clark County Family Court Judge Robert Lueck, the court said in the ruling issued Thursday. Lueck at the time was seeking to return to the bench.

The unanimous 13-page ruling, written by Justice Michael Douglas, calls Saitta's decision to seal the case without a written request and without findings or public notice "a manifest abuse of discretion."

The ruling found only that the action was improper and directed the Clark County District Court to open the case to the public. It did not address any motivation by Saitta for sealing the case.

Saitta, who was elected to the Supreme Court in 2006, did not participate in the decision. Senior Justice Deborah Agosti served in her place. Through an aide, Saitta declined to comment Friday.

Saitta was one of the subjects of a Los Angeles Times investigation of Las Vegas judges published in 2006. She was among several judges who were found to have routinely ruled in cases involving business associates or friends.

In one instance, the Times investigation found that Saitta awarded $1 million in fees for a certified public accountant and his attorneys, two of whom held a campaign fundraiser for her while the case was pending.

Lueck, a Las Vegas attorney, said he intended to seek a rehearing by the Supreme Court. He said Saitta properly used her judicial authority under Nevada rules of civil procedure to prevent his ex-wife, Jane Johanson, from using the courts to harass and embarrass him.

"This was a small, private matter that had been resolved months before," Lueck said of the child-support dispute between himself and Johanson. "This was done to hurt my campaign."

Johanson asked the Supreme Court through her attorney, Bruce Shapiro, to nullify the gag order and unseal the records of her child-support case involving Lueck. Shapiro did not immediately respond Friday to a message seeking comment.

Shapiro filed a petition last year accusing Saitta of issuing the gag order and sealing the court records to prevent voters from learning that Lueck failed to pay child support.

Lueck, who served on the Family Court bench from 1999 to 2004, lost his bid in 2006 to return to that court. At a July 11, 2006, hearing, Saitta found that Lueck was behind in his $750-a-month child-support payments. But she sealed the case, citing the potential use of the child-support information for negative campaigning.

Saitta was running against incumbent Justice Nancy Becker for the Supreme Court. She acknowledged in October 2006 that she made the statements about negative campaigns, but she denied any favoritism toward Lueck and said she ordered the gag order and sealed the records to protect the child.

State law allows a court to seal certain documents in a divorce case, but only upon written request of one of the parties. The gag order prohibited public discussion of the case by those involved. The court characterized the gag order as unconstitutionally vague and said it violated Johanson's free-speech rights.

The court said such orders could be entered only when there was a clear and present danger or a serious and imminent threat, and when no less restrictive alternatives were available.

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