Judge Susan Deriso

After 17 years as a court clerk, a Sparks mother beat the odds to become a judge

Judge Susan Deriso

Judge Susan Deriso

Sparks Justice of the Peace Susan Deriso is presiding over a small-claims case that, in terms of ugliness, rivals anything on Judge Judy or any other TV court show.

The plaintiff, a woman, is suing the defendant, her former boyfriend, for two things: the return of some pictures from her childhood and $1,000 that she insists he took from her. The plaintiff argues that it is especially important that she get the pictures back, because she is on anti-depression medication that is affecting her long-term memory.

There is some definite hostility between the two parties. In the course of the testimony, we learn why. It turns out that the plaintiff is now dating the defendant’s much-younger nephew, which is why ties between the two have been severed. Oh, and that $1,000—it was allegedly used to buy drugs.

The accusations start flying. The plaintiff calls the defendant “vindictive,” with Judge Deriso calmly but forcefully telling the plaintiff not to make the issue more personal than it already is.

The defendant counters by claiming that he already gave back the plaintiff’s pictures. And regarding that $1,000: He says he took the money back in the mid-'80s with her permission, because she was afraid to go to the part of town where he got the “hits” for the two of them.

Throughout the case emotions run high, but the judge seems to have a calming effect on everyone involved. Whenever an insulting word is uttered, she nips it in the bud with a kind yet stern admonition or a shaking of her head with a motherly glare.

At the end, Judge Deriso says she needs a five-minute recess to make her decision. She comes back about 11 minutes later. She apologizes profusely, seeming almost embarrassed.

“I say five minutes, and it’s always 10,” she says.

The judge says she sympathizes with the plaintiff—it’s obvious she really means it—but she tells her she failed to meet the burden of proof about the pictures. It’s the same regarding the $1,000—the plaintiff doesn’t even have a receipt for the 15-year-old bank transaction. The judge dismisses the case with an admonishment for the defendant to give the plaintiff the pictures back, should they ever turn up.

It was a fair decision by an obviously caring and wise judge. Watching this case’s adjudication, it’s hard to imagine that Judge Deriso almost never made it to the bench. It’s also hard to imagine that this judge is not a lawyer.

She says someone upstairs must have guided her on her trek to become a judge. She may have a point. It’s really a tale of at least five things happening that could be described as amazing coincidences, or maybe serendipity. Or maybe even miracles.

Miracle 1:

The walk-up window
While she looks the part of a judge when she’s in her courtroom, Susan Deriso doesn’t look much like one while sitting at her desk in her office. Instead, she looks more like the loving mother who lives just down the street.

She looks that way for a reason: She is the loving mother who lives just down the street. For 15 years, she’s lived in Sparks, where she and her husband of 22 years, Miles, are raising four boys: Brandon, 20, a student at Truckee Meadows Community College; Cory, 16, a student at Reed High School; Christian, 13, a student at Mendive Middle School; and Nathan, 9, a student at Marvin Moss Elementary School. She’s also looking after a fifth boy, foster son Gabriel Budreau, 17.

Born in San Diego in 1959, Deriso moved to the area with her father, a Navy man, when she was 4 years old. He was single for a good portion of her childhood, and the two remain very close today. He currently works as an electrician for Young Electric Sign Co.

“He’s an Irishman,” Deriso says, later adding that her judge’s robe is green in tribute to her Irish heritage, which is also given away by her red hair. “He’s tough. He makes me proud.”

Deriso graduated from Hug High School in 1977 but never went to college; as a matter of fact, the first college classes she ever sat in on were the ones she took at the National Judicial College after her election in November. Instead, she went to work for a series of banks around town and started a family.

One of the banks was the Security National Bank, then located at Liberty and Virginia streets. In 1983, she worked the walk-up window there. One of the regular customers who came through her line was Reno Justice Court Administrator Dona Jeppson, who would always bring by the receipts from the nearby court.

Little did anyone know at the time what this coincidental series of meetings would eventually lead to.

“She liked me,” Deriso says of Jeppson. “One day, she told me there was an opening [at Reno Justice Court] for a Civil Division clerk, and she said I should bring a resumé in. I did.”

Deriso remembers being nervous interviewing in front of a panel that included Jeppson and current Nevada Supreme Court Justice Deborah Agosti. But despite that nervousness, Deriso must have done something right. She got the job.

At the time, it was a small department, as Reno was a much smaller town; two clerks and a supervisor made up the Civil Division staff. After Deriso was on the job for about a year and a half, the supervisor and the other clerk quit on the same day as the result of a dispute. By default, Deriso was left in charge.

“I didn’t get the job as chief civil clerk for a while,” Deriso says. “I had to prove myself, I guess. They gave me the [permanent] job six months later.”

She held that job for more than 15 years. By the time she left her job after her election, the civil clerk staff at Reno Justice Court had grown to herself plus seven clerks.

Miracle 2:

The phone call from the constable’s office
Make no mistake: Being a court clerk is not easy. After all, when people have dealings with a court, it’s usually not a happy occasion. Civil clerks deal with all of the paperwork from small-claims cases, as well as other non-criminal issues, such as evictions.

"[People are] either suing or being sued,” she says. “But I was very proud of how I was able to keep people happy when dealing with things that aren’t pleasant.”

In addition to her work in Reno Justice Court, Deriso got involved with the Nevada Association of Court Clerks and Administrators, and she served as the association’s education chairperson for eight years. She taught classes to other administrators and became widely known in her field.

It was about 10 years after she started as a clerk that she had her first inkling that she might want to be a judge one day.

“I thought that with what I could see from my level at the counter, I could do a good job,” she says. “I thought of it more as a people position. It seems that if you’re good with people, and you have common sense, you’d be a fairly good judge.”

Deriso mentioned her thoughts to others, and when 1998 approached, she started specifically talking about a run for the Sparks Justice Court seat that would be up for election that year. There are two Sparks justices of the peace, each of whom is elected for a six-year term. Their jurisdiction is the so-called Sparks township, an area including Sparks, outlying areas and, most importantly, Sun Valley. They handle all small-claims cases in the area, as well as gross misdemeanors and pretrial hearings (arraignments and preliminary hearings) for felonies. They also handle misdemeanor matters that happen in the township outside of the city of Sparks; the Sparks Municipal Court handles in-city misdemeanors.

Most of the people Deriso told about her plan to run for judge didn’t take her too seriously. Neither did Deriso herself.

“I think, for the most part, people thought it was just talk,” Deriso says. “I suppose I did, too. It was a dream of mine [to become a judge], but you don’t often think of your dreams coming true.”

As the filing deadline approached in the spring of 1998, Deriso still had thoughts of running. However, it was going to be a tough battle if she did. Paul Freitag, the popular incumbent, was running for re-election, and money was tight. Plus, Deriso had little name recognition outside of court circles, and she knew her lack of knowledge and experience regarding criminal matters—as well as the fact that she was not a lawyer—would haunt her.

Deriso received her gavel as a gift from her son Brandon shortly after she lost the 1998 election. It reads: “A symbol of your next election.”

The day of the filing deadline came, and Deriso was not in the race. But she says that about 4 p.m.—an hour before the deadline—she received a phone call from an acquaintance, Carol Collins, at the Sparks Constable’s Office. Collins had noticed that Deriso hadn’t filed, despite her voiced intentions to do so.

“She told me, ‘So, I thought you were gonna run,’ “ Deriso says.

This act of teasing got Deriso going. However, there were two problems: She didn’t have enough money on hand to pay the filing fee, and she did not know how the higher-ups at Reno Justice Court would feel about her running.

She called Jeppson, still her superior at RJC, and asked her what she thought.

“She was so enthusiastic,” Deriso remembers. “I didn’t expect that. I was so thrilled, I called my mom and borrowed the money.”

She filed just in time. It was a four-person race.

Deriso says that she would not have filed had she not received that teasing phone call.

Miracle 3:

The gift of the gavel
Deriso was in the race. But now what? She had no money and no experience with political campaigns. She was also facing the incumbent Freitag, a former Sparks city attorney and Washoe County deputy district attorney, who had money and experience with political campaigns. There were also two other candidates to deal with, a full-time job she had to maintain and—most importantly—her family.

Shortly after she filed, I met Deriso. I was covering the election for the Daily Sparks Tribune at the time, and I was the first person from the media to interview her. I remember that she was nervous, humble, excited, bubbly and very likeable.

She hasn’t changed much.

Her platform was simple: She wanted to make the courts more people-oriented. She pledged to make a manual—a guide to justice court, of sorts—for people so they would know the whos, whats and whens about what can be a very confusing process.

“They need to know about small claims, about tenant rights and what things they can contest,” she told me. “They need to go where to go, when to file and things like that.”

She also conceded she had a high learning curve on criminal matters. She pledged to be fair, to listen and to check up on what the accused in her court have to tell her.

While she did not have a lot of support in her race, she did have some, mostly from people who had dealt with her at Reno Justice Court. She cites some of the landlords who filed with RJC, as well as attorneys Michael Cirac and Richard Hill, as some of her biggest boosters.

“I felt very comfortable and very pleased that they wanted to support me,” she says.

She spent most of her limited money on signs. She spent much of her spare time walking neighborhoods and going to engagements. She also says she received a surprising boost from the positive word of mouth spread by the parents of children who knew her and her children.

When the primary came in September, she was somewhat pleased with the results. She received 27 percent of the vote, easily beating bill collector Robert Smith and roofer Ray Perez, who received 9 and 7 percent of the vote, respectively. This was good enough to move on to the general election against Freitag.

But the writing was on the wall that Deriso would not become a judge any time soon. Freitag received 57 percent of the vote, more than double her vote total. (In justice of the peace races, the top two finishers move on to the general election, even if the top vote-getter receives a majority of the vote.) Still, she was somewhat excited.

“I’m thrilled,” she told me the day after the primary in 1998. “I know I have a road to hoe.”

In retrospect, Deriso says she knew she was going to lose, even though her hopes were still up.

“I did not have the expectation to beat Judge Freitag,” she says. “He was not even defeatable. I don’t know why I had a chance.”

Sure enough, in November, the voters sent Freitag back to the court’s strip-mall location at Pyramid Way and Greenbrae Drive for another six years. Freitag got 61.3 percent of the vote, while Deriso got 38.7 percent. In her words, she was “whomped.”

The day after the election—from work at Reno Justice Court—she told me she was happy with how she did.

“I feel I did pretty well for a new person,” she said. “I really like Judge Freitag. I am glad he was a fair opponent. This election was a really good experience for me.”

But now, Deriso admits she was upset about losing.

“I did feel disappointed,” she says. “You can’t help it. Even if you expect it, it still stings a little.”

Deriso was right when she said the election was a good experience for her. She learned what a campaign was like and, most important, put her name out there. She says she was committed to running again in 2000, when the other Sparks Justice Court seat would be up for election. Rumor was that, unlike in 1998, Deriso would not have to face an incumbent, as Larma Volk was hinting that she would retire.

Shortly after the 1998 election, her oldest son, Brandon, took a trip to Los Angeles. While he was there, he decided to get his mother a present. He presented it to her when he returned: a gavel with a gold band around it reading, “A symbol of your next election.”

“My family has always believed in me,” Deriso remembers. “Of course, I cried.”

The gift would prove to be prophetic.

Miracle 4:

The last-minute surge
When it came time to file for the 2000 election, there was no last-minute decision-making. Deriso threw her hat in the ring early in the filing period. There would also be no incumbent to face, as Larma Volk indeed decided to retire.

But this race would prove in some ways to be even tougher than the one in 1998. Five people were running, and three of them had very strong credentials: Deriso, former Nevada Highway Patrol trooper Pat McGill and Washoe County Deputy District Attorney Roy Stralla.

Based on campaign contributions, Stralla was the overwhelming front-runner. By the Aug. 29 contribution report, Stralla had raised $12,439. That was well more than three times what McGill raised in that time period and four times what Deriso raised.

Deriso poses with Deputy District Attorney Steven Barker, who was giving the embarrassed judge a hard time about getting photographed.

Stralla was also the front-runner in another crucial way: He had the establishment support. The names on his campaign contribution forms read like a who’s who of Northern Nevada’s legal community elite: former Washoe County District Attorney Cal Dunlap; Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio; District Court Judge Peter Breen; Freitag. The lawyers were all supporting one of their own. (You do not have to be a lawyer to be a justice of the peace.)

Stralla, like McGill and Deriso, also had roots in the Sparks area. As a matter of fact, the candidates all knew each other. Deriso says that, while the campaign was cordial, it was far more intense than the 1998 campaign was.

Although Deriso had an easy time making it out of the primary in 1998, there was no guarantee that would happen this time. She says she knew Stralla was a shoo-in; it was between McGill, who had slightly more money and a respected law enforcement background, and Deriso, who had the experience and name recognition from running before.

Deriso remembers watching the election results come in the night of the primary. She and her family were at home, logged onto the registrar of voters’ Web site to get the most updated results. Sure enough, Stralla was comfortably ahead, and McGill was doing well, too.

“Pat was ahead of me the entire primary,” she says. “I was a little bit down.”

The later in the evening it got, the more convinced she became she was going to be eliminated in a close race. Toward the end of the night, with only a few precincts left to report, she says, she went into her room for some time alone. But after a while, she heard her boys “romping.”

She went to see what was going on and learned that she had edged ahead as the final precincts came in. In the end, she got 3,040 votes (28.35 percent), a mere 39 more than McGill (27.99 percent). Stralla finished first with 3,517 votes, or 32.8 percent.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Deriso now says.

She had made it to the general election by the skin of her teeth.

Miracle 5:

Judge Susan Deriso
There was no logical way that Deriso could beat Stralla. He had the community support. He was widely known and well-liked. And he was also very well-funded.

When all was said and done, Stralla would spend $33,210.40 on the election, raising $30,868. Deriso spent $3,997.86, raising $3,975.

The number of elections in which a candidate wins despite his or her opponent’s raising eight times more money is quite small.

Deriso says she followed the same campaign strategy that she and her campaign manager, Robert Washburn, did the first time around: a whole bunch of walking, word-of-mouth support and really, really ugly signs. If you saw Deriso’s signs, you probably remember them. They were bright yellow. They made school buses jealous.

Deriso’s signs were almost all the advertising she had. Stralla had radio and TV spots. He had direct-mail flyers. He had numerous advertisements in newspapers.

It was a tough two months for Deriso. First, she and Stralla had a few awkward moments, especially after a dispute involving the placement of a sign on some land (different members of the family that owned a piece of land gave separate permission to both Deriso and Stralla to erect signs). Deriso also had to deal with some family issues in the months before the general election.

Nonetheless, she was confident heading into November.

“I was optimistic, although no one else was,” she jokes. “I had always thought of running, but never of winning.”

On the day of the election, she took the day off of work and spent it instead with her father as they drove a billboard truck around the city. Everyone was preparing her for the worst.

"'If not this time, maybe next time,’ everyone was telling me,” she says, adding that she would have felt “pretty stupid” running again after two losses.

On Election Day from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., she had a commitment with one of her sons, meaning she could not look at the returns during that time. She had no idea what to expect when she returned home. When she got there, one of her sons informed her she was down by 3,000 votes.

“My heart sunk,” she says. “Then he said, ‘Not really; you’re ahead.'”

The results were close all night. Nearly 80 percent of the precincts were in, and it was extremely tight. Then the updates on the registrar of voters’ Web site stopped coming in.

It turns out the presidential election was kind of close, too.

Deriso says one of her sons finally had to call the county to ask officials to update the results. When the final results were tallied, she’d gained 51.3 percent of the votes to Stralla’s 48.7 percent. She won by fewer than 800 votes.

It was an upset.

“I just got choked up,” she says. “It was so exciting. I called everybody.”

She took the day off of work on Wednesday and returned to Reno Justice Court on Thursday, knowing she was nearing the end of her 17-year career there. She was overwhelmed by flowers.

“People were telling me how I opened the door [for the underdog],” she says. “Everyone was surprised.”

Here comes the judge
Deriso has been a judge for six months now, and by all accounts she’s doing well. One thing’s for sure: She hasn’t changed. She is still gregarious and bubbly to everyone. She apologizes for things a lot—some would say too much. If she mispronounces someone’s name in court, she seems almost beside herself with embarrassment. And she’s working on some materials to make the justice court more people oriented, like she promised.

But she does things her way and makes it known that she is in charge—without having an ego about things.

Deriso credits Freitag with being extremely helpful and kind, even though Stralla is, in Freitag’s words, “like a second son” to him. Freitag has good things to say about Deriso, too.

“She’s doing just fine,” he says. “She’s doing better than I thought she would, I’ll tell you that. While she’s not a lawyer, and that puts her at a disadvantage, she’s very humble, willing to learn, and there are no airs about her. She doesn’t think she’s hot stuff just because she’s a judge. … Despite her humility, she calls them the way she sees them, which is great, as far as I am concerned.”

Deriso says that most people, with a few exceptions, have been very kind to her. (One deputy district attorney in particular got her goat when he made a snide remark to her in open court after she made a decision he disagreed with.)

“I know [the attorneys] weren’t sure about me at first, but I think everyone is settling in with me,” she says. “I want to earn the respect of that robe. I don’t want it given to me automatically.”

She’s also gone out of her way to heal wounds caused during the election. Deriso, Stralla and Freitag all went to lunch together a while back; Deriso set the meeting up. This is important, because Freitag is likely to retire in four years, meaning that Deriso and Stralla could end up on the bench together.

Deriso, meanwhile, says she loves her job, although she admits it “terrifies” her sometimes. She also says she is grateful and aware of the fact that, had everything not gone exactly how things did—had she not impressed the right person at the bank 17 years ago, had she not received that call from the Sparks Constable’s Office on the last day of filing in 1998, etc.—this never would have happened.

“Someone’s definitely looking out for me upstairs," she says.