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Contributions to a Nevada Judge Basis for Disqualification

A word renowned poker player and one of the youngest players to ever win eight World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelets, Phil Ivey was born in California and raised in New Jersey. Three days before Christmas in 2009, Phil and his wife Luciaetta filed a joint petition for divorce. Seven days later, with both parties present, the divorce was granted by Family Court Judge Bill Gonzalez. Luciaetta is now back in court and has asked the Nevada Supreme Court to disqualify Judge Gonzalez from deciding any further issues in this matter.

From January 2010 to April 2011, Phil Ivey paid monthly alimony to Luciaetta. According to court documents, Ivey ceased making these payments when he stopped receiving income from one of his sponsors. When Ivey’s attorney refused to turn over documentation verifying the loss of income, Bruce Shapiro, Luciaetta’s attorney, filed suit. The suit also requested that Judge Gonzalez be barred from hearing the new matter due to a lack of impartiality and a new Family Court judge be assigned.

The question of Judge Gonzalez’s impartiality stems from five political contributions made in 2010 to Judge Gonzalez for his successful November 2010 reelection – $5,000 from Phil Ivey, $1,000 from Phil’s divorce attorney, David Chesnoff, $2,500 from Chesnoff’s wife, $1,000 from Chesnoff’s law partner, and $500 from Attorney John Spilotro who Shapiro and Luciaetta claim was “hand-picked” by Ivey to represent Luciaetta in the divorce proceedings.

Nevada law allows individuals to contribute up to $10,000 to any judicial candidate. Additionally there is no law that prevents a judicial candidate from receiving a political contribution from someone who appears, has appeared, or is likely to appear before the judge in a legal matter. Nevertheless Nevada law bars judges from presiding over cases in which they have “actual bias or prejudice for or against one of the parties.”

The Nevada Supreme Court has taken this a step further by holding that a “recusal would be a necessary step to alleviate or obviate” even the appearance of impropriety, while the Nevada Code of Judicial Conduct has held that “a judge is disqualified whenever the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” However the Nevada Supreme Court, following the U.S. Supreme Court in Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co., 129 S. Ct. 2252 (2009), has expressly rejected proposals that would dictate what amount of political contribution would give rise to a judicial disqualification. Despite the recommendations of the Commission on the Amendment to the Nevada Code of Judicial Conduct, the Court felt an automatic judicial recusal when an individual or law firm campaign contribution equaled $50,000 or 5% of the judge’s total campaign donations for the previous six years.

Judge Gonzalez denied Luciaetta’s original affidavit implying bias or prejudice on the part of Judge Gonzalez. The Chief Judge of the Eighth Judicial District Court of Nevada denied Luciaetta’s second motion to remove Judge Gonzalez stating “there was not even an appearance of impropriety or any bias on the part of Judge Gonzalez. In addition, Rule 60(b) of the Nevada Rules of Civil Procedure clearly states that unless action is taken within six months of the date of the signing of the decree, a party is barred from proceeding. “Luciaetta’s appeal of these holdings is now before the Nevada Supreme Court who has held the issue of Judge Gonzalez’s bias due to campaign contributions is an “arguable merit.”

The commentary is for educational and commentary purposes only. If you or someone you know would like to pursue a divorce, and would like to be represented by a Nevada attorney, contact our office for a free confidential case review, and receive a response within hours. Call Toll Free 866-414-0400