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A Democratic Socialist Will Soon Be Sworn in as Judge in Las Vegas

Public defender and racial justice organizer Erika Ballou won a Las Vegas judgeship with the backing of the Democratic Socialists of America. Next month, she’ll take the bench with the aim of upending the criminal justice status quo.

Erika Ballou, then a deputy public defender in Clark County, Nev., speaks with colleagues outside of a courtroom Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016, in Las Vegas. That year, Ballou sparked a protest in a Las Vegas courtroom where she refused on Tuesday to remove a "Black Lives Matter" button from her blouse despite a judge's request not to demonstrate what he called "political speech." (AP Photo/John Locher)

The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) notched several high-profile wins at the ballot box this past November. But not all of those wins made national headlines. One such victory: the election of Las Vegas DSA-endorsed lawyer Erika Ballou to the district court of Clark County, Nevada.

Ballou is a career public defender, a DSA member, and a longtime activist with groups like Planned Parenthood and the National Lawyers Guild. Come next month, she will sit on the bench of the Clark County 8th Judicial District Court, the court system responsible for more than two million residents of the Las Vegas metro area.

Ballou was one of seven public defenders who ran for judgeships in Clark County this cycle, in an effort to “balance the bench” from its traditional domination by prosecutors. All seven were victorious.

When she takes the bench in January, Ballou says she is planning to offer a more humane version of criminal justice than has been the norm in Clark County. The difference between her outlook, as a fifteen-year veteran of the public defender’s office, and the traditional outlook of Clark County’s judges is dramatic, she says.

“I understand that these are people, not just defendants. Most of the people who have gotten on the bench are prosecutors, and they don’t think that our clients are human beings,” she said.

Ballou’s victory is all the more remarkable for the fact that she decided to not raise any money for her campaign.

“I don’t want people to feel like I owe them anything. I don’t think that’s a good thing for judges to have to raise money, especially from people who are going to be in front of them. Because most of the time, they’re raising money from other attorneys,” Ballou said. She also did not campaign publicly after the beginning of the pandemic.

Despite her low-profile campaign, Ballou has been in the spotlight in recent years. In 2016, she made local headlines in Las Vegas for initially refusing to remove a Black Lives Matter pin that she was wearing in court. The presiding judge had requested that she remove it, calling it “political speech” of the kind prohibited in the courtroom. Ballou, who is black, eventually replaced the pin with a black armband.

She has since remained involved in Black Lives Matter organizing. Ballou served as a legal observer at protests throughout this past summer, suspending her campaign to fully pursue activism.

“That is what I’ve been doing instead of campaigning,” she said. “I had intended to campaign, but I actually felt like the racial justice stuff was more important.”

While Ballou did not actively campaign, Las Vegas DSA (LVDSA) worked on her behalf — including securing the endorsement of Bernie Sanders, who dominated Clark County in the Nevada Caucus in February 2020. Ballou campaigned for Sanders in the leadup to the Caucus, and caucused for him in both 2016 and 2020. “I cried for, like, hours” upon finding out Sanders had endorsed her, Ballou said.

LVDSA also publicized their endorsement of Ballou through their 2020 Voter Guide, which was viewed thousands of times leading up to the election, chapter co-chair Kara Hall said.

Most DSA elected officials are members of legislative bodies, but several chapters around the country have also helped judicial candidates make it to the bench. In 2017, Pittsburgh DSA-endorsed Mik Pappas unseated a twenty-four-year incumbent to win a district judgeship. In Pittsburgh, district court handles the initial stages of criminal cases as well as housing cases. Pappas was able to use his jurisdiction to roll back cash bail and cut evictions by 40% in his first year on the bench.

And in 2018, Houston DSA elected its member Franklin Bynum to the Harris County Criminal Court. Bynum ran as an open socialist and prison abolitionist, and began his campaign by collecting petition signatures on the steps of the Harris County Courthouse from defendants’ families. Bynum ended cash bail for nearly all misdemeanors and has worked with police to reduce the number of arrests in Harris County.

With the election of Ballou and Shadia Tadros, who this November was elected to a seat on the City Court of Syracuse, New York, the ranks of DSA-supported judges are growing. DSA also scored a huge win for criminal justice with the election of José Garza to be the next Travis County (Austin) District Attorney. Garza has pledged to end prosecutions of minor drug possession cases and cash bail.

In Clark County, Ballou and the other public defenders elected to judgeships are already facing blowback from District Attorney Steve Wolfson, who recently suggested replacing judicial elections in Nevada with an appointment system, directly tying the suggestion to the outcomes in judicial races.

“In my opinion, in past elections, there was a greater correlation between how much effort a candidate put into the campaign and the result — a more direct relationship between efforts and results of fundraising and who won,” Wolfson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Ballou criticized Wolfson’s position: “He said the quiet part out loud. He said that fundraising should be the end-all-be-all basically.”

“We didn’t have the first black female appointed to the Clark County 8th Judicial District Court until 2017. What does that tell you about the appointment system? So the fact that fundraising wasn’t the end-all-be-all in this should be a good thing, and should be celebrated,” she added.

In lieu of fundraising, Ballou had the support of Las Vegas DSA and other grassroots organizations. As a smaller chapter for a big city, DSA Las Vegas didn’t run an independent campaign on behalf of Ballou or other endorsed candidates, but Hall said that members were mobilized to support the candidates directly by volunteering for their campaigns. While local judicial elections in Clark County have attracted little attention in the past, Hall said that this year was different, largely because of the summer’s historic movement for racial justice.

“After George Floyd, we’re seeing a shift where people are unhappy with law enforcement, they’re unhappy with the status quo in the judicial system,” Hall said.

While Hall is optimistic about what Ballou will do on taking the bench, she is also sanguine about the limitations of DSA’s electoral victories. “We want to abolish the police, defund them, we want the whole thing. We know that even if that’s the goal, that takes a little bit more” than electing a few judges, she said.

But Ballou framed her election and the election of other public defenders to judgeships as just the beginning of change: “I hope this means something for the future of our country,” she said. “I hope this is a tipping point where everything can’t just be tough on crime, when we have to try to both balance the field, and make sure that people get the help they need so this isn’t a recurring cycle, so recidivism goes down, so we can actually have justice in the justice system.”