We celebrate the decisive victory of DSA member, public defender, and District Judge-Elect Erika Ballou, one of seven female public defenders elected as judges in Clark County
The year 2020 will be remembered as a watershed moment for racial and criminal justice in the United States. Within just two months of George Floyd’s killing, the New York Times concluded Black Lives Matter may be the “largest movement in U.S. history.” Tens of millions of people in the United States took to the streets to protest our brutal police state, demanding radical transformation of an institution that has repeatedly and disproportionately killed Black Americans in its purported pursuit of criminal “justice.”
Calls for change this year have ranged from police accountability reforms, questioning the funding and role of police as a “public safety” institution, to outright abolition. In response, the usual suspects came to the police’s well-funded defense: police unions, prosecutors, and establishment politicians across the political aisle. Nonetheless, and despite disagreements over specific solutions, the voting public in Clark County spoke resoundingly this year: it’s time for a drastically new perspective.
Against this backdrop, it cannot be overstated how important this year’s election was in Clark County. In our local judicial elections, despite law enforcement organizations pouring money into the judicial campaigns of prosecutors looking to take the bench, voters rejected every single practicing criminal prosecutor on the ballot. That’s right: not one prosecutor became a new judge this year.
Public defenders — all women — swept the judicial elections. Starting this term, the seven female public defenders who will take the bench as new judges in Clark County are from diverse backgrounds, have never held public office (with the exception of one), and have fought for the constitutional rights, dignity, and freedom of our poor and oppressed communities throughout their careers.
November marked a tectonic shift in the makeup of our court system in Clark County — we just elected people who have spent their careers working to understand the struggle of our most disadvantaged communities, from which people are the most likely to appear in criminal courts. They spent their careers learning from these communities and will bring invaluable perspectives on how to best exercise their judicial discretion in handling their criminal cases. This makeup sharply contrasts what we’re accustomed to in this town: white male former prosecutors dominating the bench. This year, the public has clearly and resoundingly decided to bring the viewpoints of public defenders into the courtroom and we believe it is long overdue.
We especially want to highlight and celebrate the victory of one of these public defenders, Erika Ballou, a card-carrying member of Las Vegas DSA, the National Lawyers Guild, and the Clark County Black Caucus. Ms. Ballou, a fifteen-year veteran of the Clark County Public Defender’s office, has been active in local community organizations and projects for as long as she has lived in Las Vegas. She served as chair of the Legal Observer Committee for the National Lawyers Guild’s Las Vegas chapter, as well as for the NLG’s Voter Registration and Education Committee — each crucial services to our community during the racial justice movement this year.
Ms. Ballou’s countless other activities in our community include: helping our community members quash bench warrants, helping veterans in the Las Vegas Veterans Stand Down program, serving as the Angel Tree coordinator for the Clark County Public Defender since 2015 to provide gifts for hundreds of local needy children, serving on Nevada’s Indigent Defense Commission to improve public defense in rural communities, and participating in candidate selection for the Clark County Black Caucus. Ms. Ballou’s extensive work for our community makes her uniquely well-suited for the task of handling criminal cases that arise here. She will be bringing an invaluable perspective rarely enjoyed by the bench in Clark County, both as an accomplished advocate for our disadvantaged communities and as a Black woman. In a time marked by so much strife, we truly celebrate Ms. Ballou’s election to the bench and the fresh perspective she will bring to the difficult criminal cases prosecuted in her courtroom.
Yet, while the voters have spoken loud and clear this election, democracy is a never-ending project. No triumph will go without reaction from the upset established powers — without question, the law enforcement and prosecution community will find ways to lobby and pressure decisionmakers to reduce the power of the public defenders who have been elected to the bench. There will be attempts to prevent future victories, such as the one this year, and to oppose, at every turn, the compassion and understanding we expect public defenders like Ms. Ballou will offer our community.
For example, just after the results of this election, Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson has called for an end to judicial elections. Wolfson didn’t even hide the basis for his concern, lamenting that in past elections, there was “a more direct relationship between efforts and the results of fundraising and who won.” In other words, as the financial influence prosecutors and the law enforcement community once wielded in Clark County now dwindles, they seek alternatives to democracy in order to maintain power.
Another concern: District Court Chief Judge Linda Bell has unilateral power to assign what kind of cases will appear in each Clark County District Court judges’ courtroom. This power could allow Judge Bell to effectively sideline these public defenders’ influence over criminal justice in Clark County by assigning any of them to an all-civil docket, preventing any criminal cases from appearing in their courtrooms. We hope Judge Bell agrees with us that doing so would effectively nullify the voters’ most obvious intent for placing public defenders on the bench: bringing their perspective to positions of power in our criminal justice system. For anyone concerned about racial justice, it would be especially troublesome for Judge Bell to assign no criminal cases to Ms. Ballou, one of only two Black public defenders to be newly elected to a Clark County District Court position under Bell’s authority. Were this to happen, we would emphatically denounce this decision. As an organization that prioritizes democracy, we must expose and resist any attempts by local established power to countervail the intent of the public through undemocratic means such as these.
After a historic year for racial justice, electing Erika Ballou and the other six female public defenders was an expression of our collective will for a fresh perspective on the bench, one that does not see pleasing law enforcement as a necessary prerequisite for maintaining power, but is, instead, fiercely committed to racial equality. We celebrate Ms. Ballou’s electoral victory and the public defenders elected this year, and we remain committed to vigilantly defending this democratic victory in every way possible.