By Matt Ward
Courthouse whispers for weeks have indicated a rift between Pahrump’s two District Court judges.
Last Friday news that the dispute centered on leadership of the drug court program broke. This week the dispute shifts to Hawthorne, a tiny town in Mineral County.
A set of emails circulating among local court officers and state judges, including all of the state’s Supreme Court justices, revolves around one question: Should a Pahrump judge travel all the way to Hawthorne to preside over a courtroom there when a judge in nearby Fallon could do it instead?
The Tenth Judicial District operates in Fallon, which is less than an hour and a half from Hawthorne.
Pahrump, on the other hand, is nearly five hours from Hawthorne. Mineral County, however, has long been a part of the Fifth Judicial District, which includes Nye and Esmeralda counties as well.
The question of moving Hawthorne out of the Fifth Judicial District isn’t a new one. But what makes Judge Robert Lane’s July 26 email to members of the local and state judiciary so intriguing is the response it elicits from Judge Kimberly Wanker.
Lane’s email starts out explaining that he decided to host a meeting with several bigwigs in Mineral County to gauge the mood there in case the decision is made to place the town, population 3,200, into a new judicial district. He is said to have hosted a discussion with Mineral County District Attorney Sean Rowe, Justice of the Peace Jay Gunter, juvenile probation officer Curtis Schlepp and Hearing Master Vic Trujillo.
“I began the meeting with this introduction,” Lane’s email begins. “I think it was about six years ago I received my first call from the Supreme Court asking me my opinion on transferring Mineral County from the Fifth Judicial District to the Tenth. I gave them my opinion that it would seem to make sense logistically, since Fallon was one hour from Hawthorne, and Pahrump was four hours away, but that I was neutral on the issue. I received similar calls and gave a similar opinion, four years ago, two years ago, and a few months ago.”
Lane then reveals his impression of each meeting participants’ thoughts on the subject. For example, he wrote that Rowe “indicated that he believed it would be in Mineral County’s best interest to have a judge out of Fallon, rather than Pahrump.” He wrote that Gunter and Schlepp indicated they were neutral to the idea. Trujillo, however, “was passionately opposed to a transfer,” which Lane suggested may have more to do with the fact Trujillo earns $1,500 a month to hear the few cases that trickle into the rural area’s courthouse.
“It was noted that Judge Trujillo was paid $1,500 per month to be a hearing master — $500 each by Nye, Mineral and Esmeralda County. Judge Trujillo said his opposition to the transfer had nothing to do with the fact that he may lose his position if it happens,” Lane wrote in his initial email.
The Pahrump judge summed up his missive with a postscript that suggested some in Hawthorne believed him behind the push to remove Mineral County from the Fifth Judicial District. He wrote that he was neutral on the subject.
“It was implied at the meeting that I was the person behind the movement to transfer and that the voters of Hawthorne would be told as much. This is not true. I like Hawthorne and the people, and will always do my best as judge for as long as needed. I am not behind the effort to transfer and have never had anything to do with it. . . . My only involvement was responding to the Supreme Court’s phone calls, as noted above, and I have given honest opinions, uninfluenced by politics.”
Here’s where this otherwise boring judicial business gets interesting: Wanker wasn’t invited to Lane’s meeting and she made her frustrations known to all.
In a counter-email the same day, she writes that Lane overstepped his authority by organizing a meeting without at least inviting her to attend — after all, she is equally responsible for the Fifth Judicial District.
“I was blind-sided by your actions. I had no idea that you made arrangements for a meeting,” Wanker wrote in her response. “I should have been noticed of and invited to attend the July 24th meeting.”
Wanker explains in her letter that her opinion has really never been asked.
“The first I learned that you were going to ask for a transfer of Mineral County from the 5th Judicial District to the 10th Judicial District was on May 4, 2012, 5 minutes before the District Judges’ meeting at the Judicial Summit. I had gone back to my room to change clothes as I was attending the swat (sic) demonstration in North Las Vegas. You were waiting for me outside of the meeting room, and told me that you were asking the District Judge’s Association to sponsor a bill to remove Mineral County from the 5th Judicial District. We had less than 5 minutes to discuss the issue,” Wanker writes.
The new judge, appointed to replace Judge John Davis last year by Gov. Brian Sandoval, then explains that after becoming judge she began hearing from Hawthorne residents that several movements have taken place to remove the town from the Fifth Judicial District in the past and that Davis had opposed such moves.
“I never expressed any opinion to you regarding the matter. On May 4th I told you that numerous individuals had stopped by Judge’s chambers over the months while I was working in Hawthorne, told me of the past efforts to remove Mineral County from the 5th Judicial District, and informed me that Judge John Davis and Mineral County were opposed to the same,” she writes. “I also told you I did not think this matter should be decided by the 5th Judicial District Court Judges — but rather, that we should jointly hold a meeting in Hawthorne, advertise the same so the public could attend, provide an explanation of the pros and cons, and fiscal impact to Mineral County, and let Mineral County decide how they would like us to proceed.”
Wanker ends her email response to Lane by asking that he “afford me the courtesy and respect of notifying me when you are holding meetings concerning the 5th Judicial District.”
Shortly after she sends her response, Lane sends out a short email asking that the recipients of his first email “please change the word ‘campaigning’ in my email to ‘she was working,’” seemingly referring to Wanker’s nonstop political campaigning since her appointment.
“The other items that she wrote about and we disagree on, we will discuss privately, because it is bad for the dignity of the court and our jurisdiction to do so publicly in this manner,” Lane writes.
Wanker has the last word, however. She fires back late in the evening on July 26.
“As you know, you have not included me in any discussions regarding this. I have learned however, that an email was generated last week advising others of the July 24th meeting, which just proves to me that you intentionally excluded me from any meetings or discussions,” she wrote. “I simply do not understand why you have been intentionally excluding me from discussions that directly impact my job. I trust that moving forward you will be open, honest and transparent.”
The Pahrump Valley Times obtained this email from sources who wish to remain anonymous. Both judges were asked last week to respond to rumors about the rift at the courthouse and both refused to go on record.
The rift began almost as soon as Wanker took her seat last summer, sources say. It started with the newly remodeled offices that Lane oversaw before Wanker took the bench. It escalated with recent allegations involving the drug court, which operates both under a federal grant and also utilizes private funds from a nonprofit organization that is managed by a board of directors that, until recently, included Lane, disgraced former District Attorney Bob Beckett and Tammi Odegard, the drug court’s coordinator.
Lane resigned from overseeing drug court last week when the dispute involving oversight of drug court funds burst into public view.
District Attorney Brian Kunzi oversaw a meeting with drug court personnel shortly before Lane released a memo announcing the resignation.
A July 2 email from Lane to drug court staff, including to Wanker, reportedly led to that conflict boiling over. That email was also recently obtained by the PVT.
In it, Lane writes that despite handing drug court, which he created several years ago, to Wanker, it was still his to oversee.
“Nothing should be done or changed with drug court without my knowledge. If anyone wants to make major changes to the format, meeting times, court times, personnel, etc., I should be informed. I would go along with Judge Wanker’s recommendations, or else I would be obligated to take the drug court back. I couldn’t expect her to work in a program where she was unhappy with the format. If there is an audit, I should be informed. If any changes are to be made to the board of directors, the bank account signature cards, etc. I should be informed. If Judge Wanker wants to start new programs up north, of course she can do so. However, if it’s going to affect my drug court in any way, staff, banking, times, etc. we would need to discuss it. If I don’t agree to the changes in my program, we would stick with the status quo, or she would have to start her own independent program,” Lane wrote then.
It’s unclear whether the dispute over the meeting in Hawthorne and Lane’s resignation from the drug court are related.