Court candidate crisscrosses the state |

Court candidate crisscrosses the state

by Sheila Gardner

The distance from Michael Powell’s house in rural Douglas County to the Supreme Court building in Carson City is approximately 25 miles, but the candidate has spent hundreds of hours on the road and in the air in his quest to make that short trip part of his daily routine.

“Now I know why they call it a race,” said the 50-year-old Powell, an appellate attorney. “It’s not because you’re neck-and-neck with your opponent. It’s because your racing from one end of the state to the other.”

Powell is running for one of the two new seats on the Nevada Supreme Court. His opponent is Clark County District Judge Myron Leavitt, a former Nevada lieutenant governor who ran unsuccessfully for the court once before.

Nevada statute sets the annual salary for justice at $107,600.

Powell has put his appellate practice on hold and spent the last several months criss-crossing the state to meet the voters who will decide his fate on Nov. 3.

He’s spending a lot of time in Las Vegas which is Leavitt’s home turf.

Powell said he can’t afford much advertising and prefers that people get to know him in person.

n People-to-people. “Contacting people-to-people makes more sense. What does a sign with a couple of words or a radio advertisement mean? Nothing,” Powell said. “If people like you, they tell their friends.”

He also refuses to engage in negative campaigning.

“That kind of campaigning has hurt the court’s reputation more than anything I can think of,” he said. “It accounts for the tremendous number of people who vote for ‘none of the above.’ What they are saying is, ‘I can’t bring myself to vote.’ The marketing people have taken over campaigning. One marketing person told me I’d have to ‘go negative.’ I said, ‘I don’t think so.'”

Powell said it can be challenging to make voters understand how influential the Supreme Court is and how crucial it is that justices’ decisions be consistent. That’s missing from the court now, he believes.

“What the court decides is how you live your life. Ask your attorney. Can he or she give you a definite opinion on Nevada law? I guarantee they cannot,” he said.

Powell said he believes the court is more interested in results rather than establishing clear case law.

“One thing the court doesn’t have is an institutional memory,” Powell said. “Nobody tracks the issues they have decided. By not tracking the issues, they’re re-inventing the wheel every time. There is no consistency to their work. We have computers now. It’s not difficult to tag issues, put them into the computer and resolve cases at once.”

n Raising money. Powell said the most difficult part of campaigning has been raising money. He believes that Leavitt has outpaced him 10 to 1 in contributions.

“Every active lawyer in the state got a letter from me asking for a $100 donation,” he said. “My feeling is that $100 doesn’t obligate you and anybody could afford it.”

Powell raised about $12,000 from the solicitation.

He said he wouldn’t accept more than $1,000 from any individual or organization.

“My idea is to try to make the court a better place. If you’re giving me a donation because you expect something in return, then don’t give me the money because you’re not getting anything,” he said.

This is Powell’s first campaign. He doesn’t feel his lack of judicial or political experience is a disadvantage because the Supreme Court has history of justices who were not judges before they were seated.

“If I were looking for a good trial court judge, the first place I would look is for a good trial attorney,” Powell said. “If you want a good appellate judge, look for a good appellate attorney.”

n Trial vs. appellate. The difference, Powell said, is that a trial judge works to bring a case to its conclusion while the appellate judge uses “reasoned reflection” and analysis to look at the long-range effects of a decision.

“The very decisiveness of a trial judge is not helpful at the appellate level,” Powell said. “It causes collegiality to break down. When you are a district court judge, you have the last word. You don’t ask anyone for their help to make your decision. That doesn’t say a district court judge can’t be a good justice.”

Powell’s career included seven years in Micronesia, a western Pacific island near Guam which gained independence in 1986.

He was working as an intern at the National Judicial College in 1977 when he met a judge from Micronesia who had been sent to the Reno college for training. Powell was hired as Micronesia’s attorney general and helped established the first national public defender system.

He was born in New Orleans, but considers himself a third generation Nevadan. His grandmother flew him to Gold Point, Nevada when he was 6 weeks old.

He attended school in Nevada and enrolled at University of Nevada, Reno, quit school and joined the Marine Corps, serving in Vietnam in 1968-69.

Powell returned to UNR and earned a degree in 1974 in social services and corrections and in geology in 1975.

He graduated from law school in San Diego and passed the bar exam in 1978. Powell returned from Micronesia in 1983 and became the chief appellate deputy for the Nevada Public Defenders’ Office.

He and his wife, Mary Beth Goddard, went back to Micronesia in the late 1980s for two years. Upon their return to Northern Nevada, Powell and Goddard bought 20 acres in the Pine Nuts in Douglas County and built their two-story A-frame house. Goddard, who taught English in Coleville for a year, is at work on her second novel.

“I live here,” Powell said. “I am not going to be like a lot of people who forget where they came from. I went to law school later than most, I took time off to go to war. I married and had a child. I worked jobs in every major industry in Nevada – gaming, mining, ranching, manufacturing and the building trades.

“I think my connection to people is a little wider than most,” Powell said.

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