IN a race being closely watched by civil libertarians and women's groups across the West, the first woman to run for the Nevada Supreme Court is poised for narrow victory. Besides being a chance to bring female perspective to one of the longest male-dominated judicial bodies of the state, the contest is also being viewed as a battle between the younger, more liberal elements of the New West, and long-entrenched interests of casino gambling within Nevada.
District Judges Miriam Shearing and J. Charles Thompson are vying for a seat held by state Supreme Court Justice John Mowbray, who is not seeking re-election. "This race has become one of the high-profile contests of the current season," says Jon Ralston, political columnist for The Las Vegas Review Journal.
"Nevada courts are typically collegial and decide things in concert - usually all by white men. My view is that the more diverse the court's background, the more representative of the population, the more realistic [decisions] will be," Shearing says.
Ms. Shearing has been president of the Nevada Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and secretary and director of the Nevada Judges Association. She is casting herself as independent of the special interest groups which have long exerted influence over Nevada politics: resorts, casinos, banks, hospitals.
"The perspectives and experiences of women haven't been reflected in the [Nevada] Supreme Court's decisions," says Lisa Wyman, National Committeewoman for Young Democrats of America.
Shearing's opponent, Mr. Thompson, calls himself the more competent "reformer and innovator," citing 17 years as an author, educator, legislative lobbyist and sitting judge. He is principal author of the Nevada Civil Practices Manual, on the faculty of the National Judicial College which trains national judges in Reno, and teaches law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
"The people of this state should be interested in the qualifications, background expertise, and knowledge of the candidates, not their gender," says Thompson.
An April survey by The Las Vegas Review Journal placed Thompson first in areas including fairness, knowledge of law, and courtroom operation. Shearing, who claims the sampling was biased and the margin of error too high, placed next to last.
But though Thompson as been endorsed by the state's three leading newspapers, he has seen an early lead steadily eaten away by a successful Shearing ad campaign showing him taking money behind his back from special interests.
"The largest industry in Nevada is resorts and it's true that I receive money from them," retorts Thompson. "Would she prefer that only wealthy people be elected? If she was not outspending me with her own money, this race would not be so close."
A retaliatory blitz by Thompson on the state airwaves - over Shearing's alleged mishandling of a death row inmate convicted of abusing and killing his 4-year-old stepdaughter - has brought jeers against both campaigns for lowering the election's tenor.