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City, municipal court dispute grows
by Joshua H. Silavent
Apr 03, 2011 | 3246 views | 1 1 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
download JHRX_Letter_from_Municipal_Court.pdf
download 4XK3_Letters_from_City_s_Legal_Counsel.pdf
download 20UU_Amendments_to_City_Charter.pdf
SPARKS — Reports of claims and bills are listed as consent items for a reason when the City Council meets to approve them. Generally, there is no dispute about what services the government has already made payment on and discussion is limited to a simple motion and vote.

This was not the case, however, during Monday’s council meeting.

Though it was stressed repeatedly that no implication of wrongdoing was being made, several council members expressed firm disapproval of appropriating $24,000 as a retainer to the law firm of Holland & Hart.


Because these lawyers previously represented clients suing the city, according to officials, and now they represent the city’s municipal court in a dispute with city government that appears destined for the Nevada Supreme Court.

Councilman Mike Carrigan let it be known, in no uncertain terms, that he disapproved of the municipal court’s choice of legal counsel. So, too, did others.

Their concern stems from whether the aforementioned payment followed proper procedures as stipulated in the city’s purchasing ordinances.

Municipal Court Judge Barbara McCarthy, in noticeable exasperation at the perceived accusations being flung her way, responded to the council, “With all due respect, you have no authority to deny us use of these funds.”

Representatives of the municipal court have said they fear the executive branch might be “inappropriately” considering freezing its account.

In truth, this spat was a microcosm of a much larger clash over constitutional powers, and merely the latest chapter in a debate that once seemed settled but has now grown volatile.

The conflict entails proposed amendments to the City Charter, which would affirm the municipal court’s authority over its own personnel decisions.

Alice Campos Mercado, private legal counsel for the city, said the bulk of the amendment, which affirmed the municipal court’s power to hire, fire and discipline its employees, had been agreed upon. (Because of a conflict of interest, the City Attorney’s office has removed itself from the quarrel).

But objections came with the addition of new provisions and exemptions within the amendment, which would also give the municipal court power to appoint its own special counsel and allow it to assume more control of its budget.

Council members have described these additions as earmarks and worry that they threaten the city’s ability to act as a “check and balance” on the municipal court.

Moreover, council members have implied that the municipal court is trying to push through the changes to the City Charter in a bullish manner.

“We’re not going to bend under their pressure,” Councilman Ron Smith said at a Charter Committee meeting on March 16.

For its part, the municipal court asserts that the amendments are a matter of recognizing and implementing its legal rights as a separate but equal branch of government.

In a letter to the Sparks Tribune, Judge McCarthy and Judge James Spoo contend that the municipal court’s constitutional authority is “unarguably established by law.” (City government declined a request from the Sparks Tribune for a letter stating its own position).

The judges also seem perplexed by how the matter wound up in full-blown dispute.

“Contrary to innuendo, the court has never envisioned a total separation from the executive or legislative branches …” the letter reads.

In that same letter, the judges state their perception of how it came to this.

“People of competence and goodwill have not resolved this major issue, even when success seemed within sight,” the judges’ letter contends.

But it goes on to say that some people “apparently targeted failure and discord from the outset.”

The short of it is that after months of seemingly beneficial and positive talks, negotiations broke down suddenly in the early half of March, just when the city’s Charter Committee was convening to approve the amendments.

The matter was pulled from the Charter Committee’s agenda on March 16 when it was determined that both sides had not reached a full compromise, but only after council members aired their opposition to the proposed changes.

No representatives from the municipal court were present at this meeting to offer a rebuttal to the city’s position.

Judges McCarthy and Spoo said they were not informed that the Charter Committee would take the action it did.

Despite the assertions from both sides, it appears there is very good reason that this dispute be decided by legal recourse, first in district court, and then possibly in the state Supreme Court. This case is immeasurably complex and whatever case law or precedent has been set, determining who is right and who is wrong is no small feat and better left to the judgment of an independent authority.

In a matter of such importance, the Sparks Tribune believes it is vital that you, our valued reader, have access to the same information and documents that this newspaper does.

With this in mind, we encourage you to view this story online at, where you can find links to the pdf versions of letters written by representatives of the municipal court and city government, as well as a complete rendering of the proposed amendments to City Charter, and also a link to a previously published story about this matter.

To read related story, click on this link or paste it in your browser:
Comments-icon Post a Comment
April 05, 2011
Since when does a litigant in a court case get right of refusal for the counsel of the opposing side?

If the city has an issue with the firm the court has chosen, do they get to deny counsel?

Just wondering.
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