Douglas County lawyer seeks seat on Nevada Supreme Court
Douglas County resident Michael K. Powell hopes voters will see his 20 years of appellate work and lack of political experience as assets in his quest for one of the expansion seats on the Nevada Supreme Court.
Powell, 50, is running against Clark County District Judge Myron Leavitt in the only contested race for Nevada’s highest court. Leavitt, former Nevada lieutenant governor, ran unsuccessfully for the Supreme Court in a race that some say set the standard for mud-slinging.
“I’m not part of the political system,” said Powell, an appellate attorney who practices in Douglas County and Carson City.
“For some reason, if you haven’t been in the political system, you’re regarded as either a protest candidate or fringe candidate,” he said. “It seems like if you’ve worked and really not said much, and all of a sudden something strikes you that you think needs to be done, and you choose to run, those in the major political system seem to think you’re a protest candidate and I’m not.
“I’m someone who wants to do something to improve the quality of the legal system at that level,” he said.
Powell has been a lawyer for 20 years and spent the majority of that time doing appellate law.
“It’s my perception that legal precedents that come out of that particular court are not consistent. Without some consistency in the law, you can’t have any orderly development of the law,” Powell said. “What was really a small court with a small caseload is now becoming an extremely large court with a sophisticated caseload. More people mean more litigation and more sophisticated litigation.”
Powell’s career included seven years in Micronesia, a western Pacific island near Guam which gained independence in 1986.
Powell 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.
“I got a job down there as an attorney general,” Powell said. “I helped to create the first national public defender system down there. I liked it there. We were dealing with a brand new constitution. It was like being a lawyer in the United States 200 years ago. I got to help judges direct the course the law was going to take.”
Powell was born in New Orleans, but considers himself a third generation Nevadan. His grandmother flew him to Gold Point, Nevada, when he was six weeks old.
He enrolled at University of Nevada, Reno where he played basketball “long enough to get my picture in the annual.”He quit school and joined the Marine Corps, serving in Vietnam in 1968-69.
“I thought that was the thing to do,” Powell said. “The way I was brought up, you were supposed to be protecting your country. My father was fairly highly decorated in World War II, and I grew up in Gold Point listening to him and his friends talk about the war.”
Powell returned to UNR and earned a degree in 1974 in social services and corrections and in geology in 1975.
“I worked for a while as a geologist,” he said. “Our family had a lot of one- and two-person mines in Gold Point.”
He went to law school in San Diego and passed the bar exam in 1978, the same year he graduated. Powell returned from Micronesia in 1983 and became the chief appellate deputy for the state Public Defenders’ Office.
He and his wife, Mary Beth Goddard, returned 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 and built their two-story A-frame house. Goddard, who taught English in Coleville for a year, is at work on her second novel. Powell said he had been planning to run for office for some time.
“I guess I’ve passed the midpoint in my career. I’m young enough to have the stamina to do the job that is necessary and I’m old enough to know what I am supposed to be doing.”
Powell said he doesn’t have the financial resources or the inclination to engage in heavy television advertising which characterized Leavitt’s prior campaign.
“Maybe that’s what’s wrong with the process,” he said. “If you don’t have $1 million or $2 million, you don’t get to say anything.”
Powell hopes the race for Supreme Court appeals to voters.
“I don’t think the average voter thinks of this court very much,” Powell said. “It’s not like raising taxes. But the court is important. It does truly affect everybody. If you have an occasion to go to an attorney, and there’s no clear precedent to advise you, you will be directly affected.”
The race is nonpartisan.
“The whole point of the appellate court is that it’s out of the political system,” he said. “It’s not based on the latest opinion poll, it’s based on development of the law.”
Powell said he believes he possesses the necessary qualifications for a Supreme Court justice.
“You have to have a reasonable analytical mind,” he said. “You have to be able to write clearly and concisely, paying attention to how this case is going to be used in the future. It’s not like a letter to somebody, people rely on what you said to figure out how the law is going to go.
“Judges and lawyers have a difficult time making decisions if they don’t have a clue how the law will end up. You can find cases on the same legal points that are directly the opposite of each other, so how does a judge make a ruling or a lawyer advise somebody?”
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