A Las Vegas judge who threw out a pair of DUI convictions, saying prosecutors violated the state’s separation of powers doctrine, had received a campaign donation from the defendants’ attorney less than two months before the dismissals.
In a decision earlier this month, District Judge Richard Scotti upbraided the Clark County district attorney’s office for using a deputy who also serves as a state senator to handle criminal cases.
Defense attorney Craig Mueller had raised the issue in the appeal of a pair of Henderson DUI convictions, arguing that Sen. Melanie Scheible, D-Las Vegas, should not serve as a lawmaker and a prosecutor at the same time.
The same day prosecutors responded to Mueller’s court briefs, campaign finance records showed that he donated $1,500 to Scotti’s since-unsuccessful re-election campaign, which prosecutor Alex Chen, who works in the appellate division of the district attorney’s office, pointed out in court papers this week.
“This contribution was by far the highest contribution that he made to any judicial candidate in this past election,” Chen wrote. “While contributions to campaigns are extremely normal in Nevada, counsel had never made any previous donations to this Court.”
It was the most money Mueller had donated to a political campaign since 2012, other than his own, when he made a failed bid for Nevada attorney general in 2018, online records from the secretary of state’s office showed.
Mueller could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Scotti’s decision raised anew an oft-disputed issue of separation of powers in Nevada government. He called Scheible’s handling of the DUI cases “a violation of procedural due process of nearly the highest order.”
Chen wrote that when he raised the issue of judicial campaign donations during an oral argument in October, neither Mueller nor the judge acknowledged the attorney’s largesse.
The prosecutor asked for “an assurance from this Court that it fairly and impartially ruled on the matter and has avoided the appearance of impropriety based on the timing of counsel’s contribution.”
Scotti’s decisions did not directly affect other cases prosecuted by Scheible, and another judge this week dismissed a lawsuit that challenged the ability of several sitting state lawmakers, including prosecutor and Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro, D-Las Vegas, to serve in the Legislature while holding public jobs.
The Nevada Constitution clearly divides government into legislative, executive and judicial branches and states that “no persons charged with the exercise of powers properly belonging to one of these departments shall exercise any functions, appertaining to either of the others, except in the cases expressly directed or permitted in this constitution.”
Scotti wrote that the state’s separation of powers doctrine “exists to safeguard the people against tyranny,” ruling that Scheible, who was elected in 2018, did not have the authority to prosecute the DUI cases.
“This Court is not directing the Office of the District Attorney to do or not to do anything,” Scotti wrote. “Rather, this Court is protecting the rights of the accused.”
Chen indicated that the prosecutors plan to ask the Nevada Supreme Court to weigh in on Scotti’s decision, “given that this is a novel issue, but one of widespread importance,” and that “this Court’s ruling may have an impact on other cases being handled by the Deputy District Attorney.”