Charles Springer

Charles Springer was at the center of many important political developments in Nevada. Born in Reno on February 20, 1928, and educated in Reno schools and at the University of Nevada, he served in the Army’s 11th Airborne and earned his law degree at Georgetown University. He was a bill drafter at the Nevada Legislature in 1954 and ran unsuccessfully for Reno city attorney that year. In 1955, he and Howard McKissick Jr.—a Republican who later became Assembly speaker—formed a law practice. Later, he served as Democratic Party state chair, Democratic national committeeman, and Gabbs city attorney.
 
He was drawn into the orbit of the rising group of political stars around Grant Sawyer, who was elected governor in 1958. As a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 1960, he broke from Sawyer’s preferred candidate—John Kennedy—to support Lyndon Johnson, but it did not cause a permanent breach between the two. On July 16, 1962, after Nevada Attorney General Roger Foley resigned to become a federal judge, Sawyer named Springer to the post after eliciting a pledge that he would not seek election to a full term. As attorney general, Springer tried to draw attention to the need to deal with water and air pollution.
 
Sometime between 1962 and 1966, there was a serious breach in the relationship between the two allies and Springer ended up opposing Sawyer in the 1966 Democratic primary. He lost the primary and many party regulars—and Sawyer himself—blamed Springer for splitting the party and contributing to the subsequent defeat of Sawyer’s third term bid. In his campaign, Springer took populist stances on economic issues, criticizing cozy relations between government and a major bank.
 
Springer ran for governor again in 1970 as a liberal reform and antiwar candidate. With students circulating petitions to put his name on the ballot as an independent candidate, Democratic leaders went to court to pay Springer back for what happened in 1966, obtaining a lower court order taking his name off the ballot. The Nevada Supreme Court reinstated his candidacy, which was defeated in the general election.
 
The twice ­defeated candidate later became a juvenile court master and a recognized authority in the juvenile justice field. He lost a race for the Nevada Supreme Court in 1974 but was elected in 1980 and reelected in 1986 and 1992, the last time without opposition.
 
On the court Springer was protective of workers rights and skeptical of prosecutorial power. When the court ruled that workers could not even obtain a trial when they sue their employers unless they first provide supporting evidence, Springer dissented: “Nevada now becomes the only state in the nation that puts this burden on its employees. The majority concedes that this court is indeed ‘imposing special restrictions on an employee’ who is asserting contractual rights against an employer but maintains that such ‘restrictions’ are necessary in order to limit the employee's ‘unfettered right to sue.’ Under today's ruling workers' rights to sue are very much fettered by a newly-invented ‘restriction’ that is not imposed on other contract claimants in civil contract suits. Workers have a new burden that other litigants do not have to carry...Workers must bring with them to court something that other claimants need not bring; they must come equipped with some additional proof to show that they are not lying. If they do not or cannot provide this additional proof, they are thrown out of court, as is [employee] Mr. Yeager today.”
 
In a criminal justice case, Springer wrote in a lone dissent: “Interstate buses are being commandeered in Winnemucca by small posses of lawmen (calling themselves Narcotics Task Forces). These posses interrogate and sometimes search bus passengers when the buses stop in Winnemucca. They call these forays ‘bus encounters,’ and they admit to at least 75 of these boarding parties. In my opinion, these incursive boarding parties should be stopped because they are violative of state and federal constitutional prohibitions against unlawful searches and seizures.”
 
But in the 1990s Springer allied himself with Justice Thomas Steffen in a defense of Washoe County District Judge Jerry Whitehead, who was accused of questionable judicial ethics. The dispute grew into a statewide scandal that the state Judicial Discipline Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice investigated. With many attacking the justices as playing politics, Springer was badly damaged by the Whitehead affair and did not seek reelection to a fourth term in 1998.
 
He has recently been practicing law occasionally, including representing voters who registered to vote through a Republican firm and whose registration forms were destroyed.
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