Coming from the rather moderate temperature of Indiana, walking out of the Las Vegas airport into a scorching 109-degree heat was quite a different scene – not only in terms of weather, but also in terms of the city and the people. Vegas instantly felt like the antithesis of small-town Warsaw with flashing lights, mountains to my left and right, and casinos everywhere I turned. I’ve only been to Las Vegas once before, but I was too young to remember. I was born here, but my parents moved to North Carolina when I was just 2 years old, which is one of the reasons I wanted to visit the city.
My time in Vegas was action-packed. Not only did I get to explore the city and learn about its history, I had the opportunity to talk to some incredible people while I was there. I started off my first morning by going to the Nevada Supreme Court. I had the honor of interviewing the chief Supreme Court judge, Justice Michael Douglas. He has been on the Supreme Court since 2004, and his term will end in 2019. He is one of the most insightful and articulate people I have ever talked to, and what stuck out to me was how thoughtful he was with his answers to my questions. I asked him about difficult decisions he had to make in the past, ones that might lie in an ethical gray-area. He told me he has to make extremely tough decisions every day, like death penalty cases where a person’s life is at stake, and that there are times when he struggles with the fact that the law is ultimately the code by which he has to abide, not his own values. He mentioned that occasionally there are things he does as a judge that he doesn’t necessarily agree with but has to do being bound by the Constitution. Additionally, there are times when he and his fellow justices don’t come to a consensus and can get into disagreements. Regarding this issue, he said, “Every decision is personal, but it can’t be personal where you want to fight about it afterwards. You can’t be so distraught about the last decision that it affects your next decisions, where it affects the next person’s life or liberty.” Justice Douglas made many more thought-provoking comments, which I will be including in my short documentary film.
Next, I talked with Judge Jerome Tao, who was appointed to the Nevada Court of Appeals in 2014 but served as a District Court judge prior to that. I wanted to interview a couple judges because their part of their responsibility is to be nonpartisan, so I was curious to see their perspectives on the very partisan political climate of 2018. Especially because Nevada judges run for election, I wanted to know what challenges Judge Tao faced in separating the personal from the political. “It is not my job to represent the voters of the state; it’s sometimes my job to make them very unhappy because that is what my job requires,” he told me. When asking him about party bias and how divisive US politics seems, he told me that one of the good things about the court system is that it’s like a last realm of civility, where people come making honest arguments on merits and not personal attacks like we see in everyday life. Something interesting he brought up was the issue of contextualizing a case. Is it ethical to punish a person who shoplifted from a large store, even though what he stole was diapers and food for his baby, in the same way as a person who wasn’t struggling to support a family? This was a difficult case Judge Tao was responsible for, and he said that he gave the person probation, a sentence that would be considered mild for the crime.
The next day I interviewed Nevada State Senate member Tick Segerblom. Unlike the two previous judges I talked to who, for obvious reasons, did not talk about their personal political beliefs, Senator Segerblom was very vocal about his, and unlike the others, he was very short and to the point with his answers to my questions. He is a fourth generation Nevada representative, so most of his political opinions were influenced by his family. He is an extremely liberal person, even calling himself a Communist, and he led the effort to legalize marijuana in Nevada. When asking him about the challenges he faces as a politician in such a divisive political era, he said, “people who are elected are much more polarized, to the point where nowadays they are too scared to reach across the aisle.” He noted many times when his political differences with others inhibited progress from being made legislatively and times where in the interest of gaining power, people have made decisions that benefit themselves and not the people they represent. These things make it hard to be true to one’s core beliefs and values. And from a personal perspective, he told me political bias is something that affects him every day, to the point where many times he doesn’t want to interact with republicans at all because of what they believe. However, he mentioned that there are times when he makes an effort to look past those biases, saying “You’ll go to parties and people will be there with different philosophies, and the key is to figure out where they’re coming from before you start saying ‘[expletive] Trump.’”
I spent much more time in Las Vegas, where I talked to more people including Nevada Assemblyman Elliot Anderson and his wife Suzanne Bierman, who works in healthcare policy. Their interviews were also very insightful and will be included in my end-of-summer film. My next stop on my trip will be Dallas, Texas!