In this edition of Meet the Incumbent, VLM interviews Judge Richard Scotti, a judge in the Nevada Eighth Judicial Court.
Fairness, courtesy and careful deliberation. Since Judge Richard Scotti was elected in November 2014 to a 6-year term as District Court Judge, Department 2, those are the tenets he’s leaned on to preside over the legal community’s civil and criminal cases about which he is so passionate.
In 1984, after graduating with honors from the University of Southern California with degrees in political science and international relations, Judge Scotti earned his law degree from Hastings College of the Law where he graduated in the top 10 percent of his class. Admitted to practice law in Nevada and California (and a 25-year Nevada resident), he practiced complex business, construction, and general civil litigation for 26 years before joining the bench serving two terms on the Nevada State Bar’s Board of Governors (2010-2014) where he was devoted to projects that advanced civility, diversity and education among Las Vegas’ legal community.
Over the years Judge Scotti’s work has also included service as an arbitrator, mediator and regional coordinator for the Fee Dispute Program of the State Bar of Nevada (1999-2014), and the Nevada State Contractor’s Board (2013-14); a mediator for the Nevada Foreclosure Mediation Program (2009-2010); a settlement judge for the Nevada Supreme Court (1999-2009); a member of the Clients Security Fund Committee of the State Bar (1997-2002); and a writer/editor for the “Ask A Lawyer” column in the Las Vegas Review Journal (1994-95). Arguably his biggest non-work passion has been handling pro bono cases and participating beside students of all ages in various mock trial and moot court programs.
An avid family man and lover of political history, poker and chess, Judge Scotti has been married for 30 years and has two grown children. For his contribution to the Las Vegas legal landscape, VLM is honored to step into the mind of this issue’s Meet The Incumbent.
Vegas Legal Magazine: What in your childhood or young adulthood could you look back on and view as a sign of what was ahead for you in your law career? Did you have a moment when you knew what you wanted to do?
Judge Scotti: My pre-teen years were spent living in a poor community in Carson, Calif., behind an oil refinery, and surrounded by frequent robberies, drug deals and murders. My elementary school had gangs, drugs and knife fights. As such, I came to recognize at an early age that all was not well in the world.
Fortunately, I had loving and attentive parents who directed my thoughts toward compassion for the victims, justice for the criminals and correction of the conditions that promoted such havoc in our community.
My parents encouraged me to read at an early age. A favorite book of mine was Meet Abraham Lincoln. I was struck by the president’s perseverance in overcoming all odds to become a lawyer and great leader. Then, in fourth grade, I served on a “legal team” to prosecute a student for disruptive talking in class. I found the exercise of assembling evidence and presenting our case to be fascinating.
In fifth grade, my mother had me read an abridged version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Handed down from my French grandmother, this tale identified many issues surrounding human dignity and compassion, and instilled within me the concept that just laws require just application and enforcement.
Finally, for career week in sixth grade, I had to select a probable career and a path to get there. By then, and without hesitation, I knew my future would be in law, and my law school would be Hastings College of Law. And so it was.
VLM: What do you love most about being involved in the law community in Las Vegas? Does it differ from practicing law or sitting on the bench elsewhere?
JS: I practiced law in Los Angeles for 5 years before moving to Las Vegas. Due to the relatively large number of lawyers there, attorneys remained mostly anonymous to each other. This anonymity begat incivility.
Las Vegas is different. Because our legal community is relatively small, we get to know each other, care about each other, and follow each other’s lives. We recognize that our behavior has consequences because we will all see each other again.
I recognized this difference almost immediately when I began working for Mort Galane in Las Vegas in 1992. I was surprised to learn that attorneys often served papers by hand delivery, with opposing counsel signing an acknowledgment of receipt. In my recollection, most attorneys in Los Angeles would never think of acknowledging receipt of anything, unless under court order to do so. Even then, there would likely have been several preceding motions for sanctions.
It is gratifying to note that in the past 25 years, while the size of our legal community has grown, the general level of civility has remained a constant.
VLM: What is the most memorable case you tried as an attorney before taking the bench?
JS: When I was a senior associate at Kemp, Jones & Coulthard, I was encouraged to handle pro-bono cases. As such, I accepted a case from the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada to represent a woman whose daughter had been placed into an in-patient drug rehabilitation center after abandoning her mentally impaired son.
The grandmother felt hopeless, dealing with problems that seemed insurmountable. She was unable to get her grandson enrolled in a school for special needs persons. Nor was she able to make his health care decisions. Also, she was having trouble feeding the family due to her inability to obtain his previous government assistance payments.
I facilitated this woman’s desire to become the legal guardian of her grandson, thus opening the doors for the solutions to her problems.
This case was not memorable due to the hours I worked, nor the results I was able to obtain. It was memorable because when I told the woman what I had done, she cried. She cried because an institution and a group of people actually cared, and helped her without asking for anything in return.
This is what makes our profession in law so special. We are in a position to help so many people.
VLM: What is the most memorable case you have presided over as a judge… and why?
JS: Unfortunately, my most memorable case as a judge is not a good memory. I hope that will someday change. But in the meantime, I am haunted by the murder of a sweet young woman, a beloved Clark County elementary school teacher, who was brutally beaten to death with a baseball bat. The jury found her estranged husband guilty of this crime.
The woman’s 14-year-old son awoke to her screams and called police, while the 18-year-old-daughter climbed out her window, running to a neighbor’s house for help. But the police could not arrive in time to save the woman, not to mention the lifelong trauma for the children.
Amidst the extreme good in this world exists too much evil. And this evil is often difficult to spot in advance. Despite the tough cases and the bad memories they create, I fully appreciate my role advancing justice for all.
One of the most awesome responsibilities that I have is to exercise my discretion to mete out punishment for the guilty. The sentences I give are engrained into my memory because they have such profound impact—positive and negative—on so many lives.
VLM: What is the most challenging thing about sitting on the bench versus trying cases as an attorney? And was there something in your transition that took some getting used to?
JS: As a judge, it is not my role to instruct attorneys on how to present their case. But it is often difficult to resist the urge to jump in when an attorney misses a critical question, or when I believe the jury may not understand a critical fact.
In private practice I questioned witnesses in thousands of hours of depositions and I served as a Supreme Court Settlement Judge, a State Bar Fee Dispute Arbitrator, and a Foreclosure Mediator. These experiences have left me with a strong desire to ask questions in every case, and to obtain as much information as realistically possible to uncover the truth. I understand, however, that this is not my role as part of the judiciary.
Although court rules do permit the judge to ask an occasional question to help the jury to understand the testimony better, it must be done in a completely neutral manner. In any event, I continue working on how to resist the urge to ask, and let the attorneys try their own cases.
VLM: Describe a situation where you had to support a legal position that conflicted with your personal beliefs, and how you handled it.
JS: In one case, I had to invalidate a murder suspect’s confession of guilt after concluding that the suspect had not been given an appropriate Miranda warning. However, having read the confession, my personal belief was that probable cause existed to believe the defendant was guilty. My task was to follow the law, as delineated by the United States and Nevada Supreme Courts.
I was guided by the analysis in recent decisions from United States District Court Judges Richard Boulware and Jennifer Dorsey. These judges aptly explained the importance of police warning a suspect that he/she has the right to consult with an attorney prior to the commencement of questioning, as opposed to merely advising the suspect that he/she has the right to the presence of an attorney during questioning. This important distinction could result in the defendant getting legal advice to not speak with officers at all.
As it turned out, the jury found the defendant guilty of murder without the confession. This situation served as a reminder to me of the judiciary’s role in safeguarding the constitutional rights of defendants.
VLM: Describe a court situation that tested the limits of your patience. How did you respond? And in hindsight, would you have done anything differently?
JS: Two years ago, I chaired the State Bar Civility Task Force, working with the Bar to amend the Attorney Oath. This oath requires attorneys to act civilly with the public, the court, and each other. It seems that a few attorneys may not have studied the new language. Discourteous behavior can test the court’s patience.
Every so often, there is a pairing of attorneys who lose composure. They may yell at each other, interrupt, engage in name calling, threaten sanctions, and exaggerate facts in the process. I once found it necessary to position my marshal directly between two attorneys to avoid the risk of violence.
When faced with such disruption, I remind the parties of the Clark County Pledge of Professionalism, and sometimes direct them to read the ABA 2011 Resolution on Civility. For their convenience, I keep copies of these documents behind the bench, dispensing them free of charge as necessary (occasionally to the recipient’s chagrin). Civility helps us all—on both sides of the bench, aisle, gallery, or other—to resolve conflict with respect and integrity.
VLM: Biggest pet peeve triggered by attorneys that appear in your courtroom?
JS: My primary peeve is when attorneys, in both civil and criminal cases, unnecessarily waste jurors’ time due to their lack of concern, unpreparedness, or incompetence. Examples include being late for the start of trial, or late in coming back from lunch or shorter recesses. Some attorneys take extra long breaks to fix their disarray of exhibits. Sometimes, they do not have witnesses ready to testify on time. Attorneys may use breaks to make frivolous or weak motions, without giving the court the benefit of a written brief. Attorneys may cause delays by not resolving equipment and technology issues before the start of trial. Also, some attorneys delay in submitting jury instructions, thus forcing the court to settle them at inconvenient times.
Our judicial system relies on a group of fair and impartial jurors who depart from their daily routine, family life and commitments to perform the extremely daunting task— unfamiliar to them—of sitting in judgment. While I am sympathetic of unforeseen problems that arise during trial, we must all work diligently to respect the value of jurors’ time in service to our community.
VLM: What is your best piece of advice for litigants and/or attorneys that appear in your courtroom?
JS: When walking into my court, litigants and attorneys should feel that they know more about the facts of the case, and the applicable law, than anyone else in the building. They should begin their argument with a summary of the issues, the applicable rule of law, and the relief sought. They should be prepared to discuss any relevant precedents and nuances, and be able to tell the court their understanding of the opposing counsel’s position, and why it is wrong. And in the likely event I interrupt oral argument . . . be prepared to answer the court’s questions.
VLM: Knowing what you now know about your work, what advice would you go back and give your younger self about practicing law, or sitting on the bench?
JS: Whether practicing law, sitting on the bench, or driving a truck . . . we are all a work in progress. Every victory, every loss, every mistake, every failed argument, every misspoken word, and every road taken, leaves a mark in our memory and changes us. If we pay attention and remain receptive in the face of adversity, these moments help us become better people, better advocates for others, and better decision makers. So, celebrate your advances and learn from your setbacks.
If I had to offer my younger self any advice about the practice of law, it would be to recognize that every time you are knocked down, you have earned an opportunity to learn and grow. I would also tell my past self to better express appreciation for the opportunities you will be given, and to say “thank you” more often to those who help you along the way.
VLM: What has being a judge meant to you?
JS: I am both fortunate and grateful that I was born in America, the finest country in the world. Being a judge allows me the opportunity to express that gratitude through service to our community. I take this opportunity very seriously.
My path to becoming a judge did not happen in a vacuum. I was fortunate to have had fine parents, teachers, mentors, and co-workers. I was even more fortunate to have a very supportive family, including my wonderful wife of 30 years, and my two fine children, all of whom I am quite proud.
My pride in America is prominently displayed in my courtroom. My courtroom displays a full-size framed copy the Constitution of the United States, reminding all of us why America has the finest system of law and governance in the world. Directly behind the witness stand, a large picture of the Statue of Liberty is displayed for all to view. The message is to remind everyone that the American justice system applies equally to all who enter my court.
Being a judge emboldens me to search for more compassion, more time to study, more insights on how to be fair, and more wisdom to find the right answers.
Thank you all for allowing me to serve you.