Carson City Judge James Todd Russell has a strange sense of ethics.
Now that stories in the Reno Gazette-Journal have revealed that Russell co-owns a piece of property with Republican congressional hopeful Mark Amodei, his actions in a May case directly affecting Amodei’s ascension to GOP nominee merit revisiting.
Russell did not disclose his financial relationship with Amodei, who at the time was the chairman of the GOP, which was the plaintiff in the suit before the judge. What’s more, 10 days before the May 19 hearing, in a move widely reported (including in Russell’s hometown paper), Amodei had announced his candidacy in the special election to replace Dean Heller.
The GOP had sued the secretary of state, who had called for a free-for-all election, which would have greatly diminished Amodei’s chances. The Republican Party, headed by Amodei (he did not resign until May 25), sued Secretary of State Ross Miller, saying a nomination process through the central committee (which greatly favored Amodei) was the correct way to conduct the election.
Russell not only found for the GOP, he issued a scathing denunciation of Miller, calling his reasoning “absurd.” (Russell later was upheld by the state Supreme Court, which used different reasoning and criticized Russell’s characterization of Miller.)
How Russell did not think he should disclose his ties to Amodei, who also happens to be his former law partner, is unfathomable. (To be fair, the land is only worth $500.) And the judge’s explanation when asked this week by the Gazette-Journal’s Ray Hagar, is simply laughable:
"First of all, who knew if Mark was running or not running?" Russell said. "I hadn't talked to Mark Amodei in over a year. And more important than anything, he was not part of the action (of the lawsuit). Secondly, we go by the parties who are in the action. Nobody ever raised the issue and I did not think of it, to be honest with you. And I would not have thought of it from a practical sense because if somebody is going to run or not run, file or not file, that is probably different than if they go down and actually filing ... In the past, people have declared and have not done that (file for office). Probably more important than anything, I made my ruling on the 19th of May, from the bench. He may have said that in the newspaper (that he will file for office) but I don't think the filing period had opened (by May 19)."
Who knew? Many people knew. Not part of the action? He was the head of the group that sued. The filing period hadn’t opened? That is diversionary nonsense.
Here’s the full Hagar piece
UPDATE: Amodei's campaign informs me the candidate was in the audience but had no conversations his land deal partner. I wonder if Russell pondered why he was there....)
Seems to me several judicial canons come into play here. Here’s how the canons begin:
A judge shall uphold and promote the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary and shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.
A judge shall disqualify himself or herself in any proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.
The judge knows that he or she, individually or as a fiduciary, or the judge’s spouse, domestic partner, parent, or child, or any other member of the judge’s family residing in the judge’s household, has an economic interest in the subject matter in controversy or in a party to the proceeding.
Amodei may not have been named in the suit, but he clearly was a de facto party because he chaired the GOP.
The canons also clearly urge a judge to disclose, too:
A judge should disclose on the record information that the judge believes the parties or their lawyers might reasonably consider relevant to a possible motion for disqualification, even if the judge believes there is no basis for disqualification.
The canons are here
I can’t imagine what Russell was thinking. Yes, the high court gave different reasoning for ruling a free-for-all was erroneous. But Russell’s strange ethics taint the process and raise questions about his lack of disclosure and relationship with Amodei.