Washoe Family Court guide: We talked to the three candidates vying for Chuck Weller’s seat

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Three candidates are battling for an open position in the Second Judicial District Court, Department 11—previously held by Reno Judge Chuck Weller.

Weller, who had a tumultuous final term and was fined $2,500 by the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline for making “disturbing” and “offensive” comments about women, decided not to seek re-election this year.

Paige Dollinger and Gregory Shannon, both of whom currently serve as family court masters are squaring off for a seat as a judge. That also includes Lance White, who also formerly served as a court master and now works as a private attorney practicing family law.

Dollinger said she’s qualified to serve as a family court judge because of her experience as both a deputy district attorney and a public defender.

“I’ve just really gotten a variety of experience over the last 17 years,” she said.

In that time, Dollinger has worked in family court, handling child abuse and neglect cases, domestic violence cases, and other cases within the specialty courts, she said.

Shannon also emphasized his experience working as a deputy district attorney for more than 25 years. He said he started in the criminal division and worked on child support and child protection cases.

He then worked in the civil division for about 13 years. During that time, he served as an attorney representing the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office.

“I’ve been doing family law since 1983 in one form or another,” said Shannon, a father of two grown daughters and grandfather to three children. “I keep returning to it because there’s something about it that is so important.”

Meanwhile, White said he’s qualified for the job because of his experience in family court — going back to when he was a child.

On his campaign website, Lance shared his story of how he ended up in child protective services and was placed into short-term foster care. Eventually, he graduated from law school and served as a judicial law clerk to three different family court judges in Reno. He founded and co-owns a law firm, Widdis & White, PLLC, and practices exclusively in family law.

“I’m bringing the perspective of a dad,” White said. “Right now, it’s entirely possible that we’ll have an all-female bench, which I suppose for some people would be a moment of congratulations. But I don’t think it’s a good thing when you have half the litigants there who are fathers.”

Here’s a look at each of the candidates and why they’re running:

Paige Dollinger

Age: 45

Education: Dollinger attended the University of Nevada, Reno. She earned her bachelor of arts with a major in anthropology and a minor in biology. She later studied law at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, where she earned her first Juris Doctor degree and graduated in 2001.

Occupation: Dollinger serves as one of four court masters in the Second Judicial District Court’s Family Division. She is assigned to juvenile delinquency.

Why are you running for family court judge?                                   

Dollinger said she really enjoys working in family court.

“When I applied to the job as the juvenile delinquency court master a couple of years ago, I really didn’t know if I would be any good as a judicial officer or if I’d like it,” Dollinger said.

“I really enjoy the job,” she said. “It’s kind of like being a referee of sorts.”

Dollinger said she felt she was the most qualified candidate because of her previous experience.

What is your judicial philosophy?

“I think at its most basic, a judge needs to be able to apply the law, not second-guess the law or go rouge and try to defy it,” Dollinger said.

She said her best quality is being prepared.

“I take a lot of time to prepare for each and every case that’s on my docket,” she said, adding she also takes notes before every court docket. “I’m very thorough. I read every single pleading, evaluation, and everything that has been filed into the case.”

She said she also believes judges should show compassion, especially in family court.

“You need to be willing to be patient with folks, to listen, to let everybody have their turn to speak … before making a well-thought-out decision,” Dollinger said. “You need to be decisive.”

What do you think are the challenges of serving as a family court judge?

“In these times, just being able to have court in the physical courtroom is a challenge and what that’s going to look like moving forward,” Dollinger said, referring to the statewide shutdown brought on by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. “I don’t really see how that’s going to change any time soon.”

The recent impacts of the outbreak have forced judges and others working in family court to utilize technology as a way to give people access to the proceedings.

Dollinger said most family court judges and masters are using Zoom to hear cases, “rather than having cases sit stagnant.”

The other challenge is dealing with emotional cases that involve divorce, property division, and child custody hearings.

“It’s really highly emotional and can be a very hostile place to preside as a judge,” she said.

What would you change or do differently in family court?

Dollinger said she would encourage others to use technology in certain court proceedings moving forward.

She said she was the first court master to suggest carrying cases remotely, particularly in juvenile cases.

“Those cases still need to be heard,” she said, adding she took on a leadership role in that regard.

Dollinger said most people, especially those involved in domestic violence cases, felt comfortable participating in court proceedings from the safety of their own home. Still, an in-person connection is important for some court proceedings, such as evidentiary hearings or trials.

She also placed an emphasis on alternative dispute resolutions and using mediation programs and settlement conferences in certain court cases.

Dollinger said going to trial in contested divorce or custody cases can cost a lot of money.

“I would definitely try to help folks come to a resolution and make their own decisions for their families because they’re in the best position to do that than a judge,” she said.

For more information, visit the Dollinger’s campaign website

Gregory Shannon

Age: 64

Education: Shannon was a student at California State University, Fullerton. He also studied at Southwestern Law School in downtown Los Angeles.

Occupation: Shannon serves as a court master in the Second Judicial District Court’s Family Division. He handles child support cases.

Why are you running for family court judge?

“I’ve always been interested in a judicial career,” Shannon said.

Shannon has served as a court master for the past eight years. Although he retired from the Washoe County District Attorney’s Office, his intention has been “to go on to other things,” he said.

His goal is “to do no harm” and to try and work out a decision that’s fair to both parties in the family court.

“Nobody goes to family court because they want to,” Shannon said, adding most people have limited incomes. “There’s a problem, there’s a crisis. I see these people all the time.

“There’s a lot of strain, especially now with COVID,” he said. “This is an unusual period of time.”

With his courtroom experience, Shannon said he believes he can help people.

What is your judicial philosophy?

“My judicial philosophy is to, not only listen to the parties but to let them know I listened,” Shannon said. “Judges do rule in favor of one party against the other, but that’s not how I look at it.

“What I try to do is make the correct ruling under the law that is fair to both parties.”

What do you think are the challenges of serving as a family court judge?

Shannon said the biggest challenge would be applying his skills so he can be equally fair to both parties.

“In family court, there’s no right or wrong,” Shannon said. “It’s two people who have a dispute and children are involved—although not always.

“Everybody wants to be heard and treated fairly,” he said. “It’s difficult. You don’t want to favor one side over the other. You want to be fair to both sides.”

Another challenge would be helping juvenile offenders who need guidance in their lives.

“Family court is difficult psychologically for a judge who is trying to make the right decision,” he said.

What would you change or do differently in family court?

Shannon said he wants to make sure both parties and their attorneys are “a little more sensitive to the rules of evidence and the rule of procedure.”

“Family court tends to be a free for all sometimes,” he said.

Shannon said all parties need to have access to the same information to ensure their right to a fair hearing. He said he’s often encountered attorneys who submit evidence last-minute, without giving the other side a chance to review it.

He said he’d like to see more organization in courtrooms.

Shannon also referenced Weller’s indiscretion in making inappropriate remarks about women in the workforce.

“I would like to restore public confidence, and I think I can avoid some of those pitfalls,” Shannon said, adding he feels “at home in the courtroom.”

For more information, visit Shannon’s campaign website

Lance White

Age: 49

Education: White earned his Bachelor of Science in philosophy and in political science from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

In 2003, White earned his Juris Doctorate from Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland, Ohio.

Occupation: White practices family law at Widdis & White, PLLC, a law firm he co-founded and co-owns.

Why are you running for family court judge?

“I always wanted to run for family court judge,” White said, emphasizing he started as a law clerk for Department 11.

“I’ve had experience with family court issues my entire life, starting with when I was a kid and then an adult and a lawyer and later as a court master,” he said, “and now again as an attorney in private practice.”

What is your judicial philosophy?

“I think it’s important that you never forget where the litigants are coming from,” White said. “When judges put on the black robe, they forget that people fear authority figures.

“I think it’s hard for them to understand really how these people live their lives are from day to day.”

White also emphasized he can relate to fathers who are going through the court process. He said many parents feel they’re not being heard or are misunderstood.

“I’m also bringing the perspective of a dad,” he said.

What do you think are the challenges of serving as a family court judge?

“The biggest problem is that you don’t have enough time to hear everything,” White said. “So, you must make decisions on limited time and limited evidence, which makes it difficult.

Another challenge is coordinating with six family court judges on different policies and rules.

“Even though you’re elected by the people, the court administration has a lot of influence on how and when you need to do what you need to do as a judge,” White said.

What would you change or do differently in family court?

“I rely more on getting cases before me sooner rather than later,” White said. “There’s been a delay on how long it takes for someone to come before a judge.”

White said several cases, especially high conflict cases, often “go south.” Most people need help but don’t see a judge in time.

“Children wait so long sometimes that they’re in an entirely different phase of development by the time they get in front of a judge,” he said. “So, speed is key.”

For more information, visit the White’s campaign website

Marcella Corona is a breaking news reporter who covers crime and justice in Northern Nevada. Support her work by subscribing to RGJ.com.

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