Attorney at Law mini preview — Greater Las Vegas Premiere Edition
ATTORNEY of the MONTH
Justice A. William Maupin
On Life, Law and Being Back in the Well
Retired Chief Justice William Maupin felt a familiar sensation when he walked into a courtroom as an attorney for Lionel Sawyer & Collins after 12 years of serving on the state’s highest court – “the butterflies.” They were very much like the jitters he experienced as a 24-year-old, when the first case he would ever argue in a courtroom happened to be in front of the Nevada Supreme Court, a judicial body he would one day lead.
Justice Maupin doesn’t skip a beat when asked about his favorite aspect of returning to private practice after a fulfilling and productive career on the bench.
“Certainly the most fun I’ve had was going back in the courtroom. The best part was experiencing the angst and thrill of being in the well again, standing in front of a podium and arguing to a brilliant district court judge. It was then I realized that I had made the right decision to return to the practice of law.”
During Justice Maupin’s 12 years on the Nevada Supreme Court, the court worked at length to improve the efficiency of the Nevada court system and improve access to justice for Nevadans. When he announced his retirement, the Las Vegas Review Journal wrote that Justice Maupin provided hope during trying times for the integrity of the judiciary.
Today, he is Of Counsel for Lionel Sawyer & Collins, where he uses his experience as a lawyer to prepare and argue cases and consult with his colleagues in the firm. His knowledge and expertise as a judge is also put to use in arbitration and mediation proceedings.
Path to the Supreme Court
Justice Maupin was supposed to be a fourth-generation medical doctor, a path his father and grandfather had chosen. His great-grandfather started the tradition by serving as a doctor during the Civil War. “My father was a surgeon and later a very prominent health physicist in the nuclear weapons testing program. That’s how we ended up in Nevada.”
He remembers coming home as a seventh grader to find a medical school anatomy textbook sitting on his bed. But a single career day at Las Vegas High School would set him on another path altogether when a lawyer visited the school to speak with students. He waited until he was in college to break the news to his parents, who ultimately supported and encouraged his legal endeavors.
Based on that experience, Justice Maupin believes in openness to changes in viewpoints — something that can serve any lawyer well.
“The law is by definition a conservative institution because you rely on precedent and try to follow it when you can,” Justice Maupin said. “But the socioeconomic human condition is always changing and the law has to change with it. Changes in technology require changes in law. Lawyers need to be agents of change, not for change’s sake, but to make things better for people. The legal profession is first, last and always about people, human difficulties and human achievement.”
Becoming a lawyer came with plenty of challenges, even outside the pressures of academia. Justice Maupin was so painfully introverted that the thought of a simple telephone conversation would spark pangs of anxiety.
“My first court appearance was in front of the Nevada Supreme Court,” Justice Maupin remembers. “The night before that was the worst night of my life. I mean it really was. I thought if it’s going to feel like this, I need to find something else to do.”
Justice Gordon Thompson, who served from 1961 until 1980, noticed immediately how frightened the young attorney standing in front of him was.
“He was very kind and asked me a question designed to get me to argue the case,” Justice Maupin said. “I never looked back. He made it one of the most beautiful experiences of my career.”
Justice Maupin would spend the next 22 years of his career practicing civil litigation before being appointed by Governor Bob Miller as a Clark County District Court Judge in 1993. The appointment would spark the beginning of Justice Maupin’s career on the bench.
He won a seat on the Supreme Court in a contested 1996 election and says he was fortunate to come along as his fellow justices were developing processes to improve efficiency and openness in the judicial system. “We all agreed to a process that would create more openness, to the degree you could have such a thing,” Justice Maupin said. “The deliberative process has to be closed to the public and that can’t change, in my opinion.”
During his tenure on the Supreme Court, Justice Maupin also worked with other court members to reduce a heavy backlog of cases, streamline the civil justice system, provide for better access to court records system-wide, and played a major role in revamping procedures to ensure indigent defendants had access to quality legal counsel. “In this, we also determined that the court needed to engage in greater community outreach and continue the process of providing more explanation of its rulings.”
The backlog issue was crucial; particularly considering the Nevada Supreme Court is the second busiest appeals court in the country. The state doesn’t have an intermediate appeals court and needed to find a way to address the huge caseload. Justice Maupin says his fellow justices, the state legislature and other groups played an instrumental role in finding the resources needed to build up legal and clerical staff, implement new technology for the court system at all levels and provide assistance for courts in rural areas of the state.
He retired effective January of 2009 and decided to return to private practice. The decision would also allow him the opportunity to speak out and support two ballot initiatives he felt strongly about – merit selection of judges and the creation of an intermediate appeals court. While the measures ultimately failed, Justice Maupin has no regrets about leaving the bench and fighting for proposals he believed would make the state a better place.
“I felt someone needed to come out of the judiciary and raise funds and help promote those ballot initiatives, and I couldn’t do that as a judge,” Justice Maupin said.
“While blessed with fulfilling careers as a District Judge and Supreme Court Justice, I always felt like I was a temporary member of the judiciary. It just seemed like a good time to go back to what I’ve always loved the most, which is being a practicing lawyer.”
A Balanced Life
To stay grounded, Justice Maupin enjoys playing golf – although he admits it’s not always something he considers relaxing. He also embarks on yearly trips to the Washington, DC area.
“If I want my batteries recharged I go to the Lincoln Memorial,” Justice Maupin said. “Just being at the memorial at night and reading Lincoln’s Gettysburg and second inaugural addresses rejuvenates me as a lawyer.”
Justice Maupin has also travelled regularly to Haiti since 2002 with the aid
organization Friends of the Children of Las Cohabas, Haiti Foundation. He travels with Dr. Kenneth Westfield and Dr. Tyree Carr and assists in providing eye care to the impoverished people of Las Cohabas.
“It is very rewarding to be part of a project of that magnitude,” Justice Maupin said. “These doctors restore vision and preserve health to many poor people. That is really something.”
With so much experience behind him, Justice Maupin hasn’t even begun to slow down. He revels in the same excitement he felt early in his career, when walking into a courtroom for the first time. While his wisdom is deeper and his resume longer, Justice Maupin is still like that 24-year-old kid who stood before the judge knowing he was part of something big. That realization came with both humility and responsibility, two traits that have helped Justice Maupin keep his focus on the law and the humanity it ultimately serves.
“I can only say that my career has involved a series of marvelous opportunities, but they have all centered on being able to walk into a courtroom and be part of one of the most important processes in our democracy.”