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firm is being sued by the family of Hard Rock
Hotel executive Randy Kwasniewski, who
allegedly committed suicide while under the
influence of Ambien. His family is suing for
wrongful death in federal court.
The 76-year-old Morris sounds relaxed
and mildly bemused by some of what
he sees. He’s pink-faced, his silver hair
receding. Like many who have long lived in
Las Vegas, he is weary of the misperception
folks have about what it’s like to do
business in this town.
“It still remains the belief of outsiders,
One thing he particularly likes is the more
and among so many people coming to raise
money for schemes, that there’s money lying
on the streets and that all you have to do is
just pick it up,” he says. “It certainly isn’t true
these days, when many gaming companies
are struggling to keep ahead of things and
having a hard time of it.”
Nevadans themselves are as streaked with
a libertarian independence. Morris notes that
the state court system is less likely to follow
established models than some other states.
freewheeling way Nevada allows counsel to
interact with witnesses and juries.
“I like jury trials. I might say I prefer trying
It’s a matter with special relevance to
a jury case in state court to one in federal
court,” he says. “It’s a much more interactive
environment for lawyers in state court than
in federal court.”
Morris has spoken up in the past about
another aspect of the state’s legal system
which he is less fond of: Nevada’s tradition
of giving judges, who run for office, broad
leeway to raise funds from firms that also
appear before their court. “If it’s a close
call, asking judges to treat lawyers who
contribute money the same as lawyers who
don’t is asking for the superhuman,” he told
a Los Angeles Times reporter in 2006. Today
he says the practice is still prevalent.
Morris, because his wife, Kris Pickering, is
a justice on the Supreme Court of Nevada.
Before her election in 2008, Pickering was
a partner in Morris Pickering & Peterson;
that firm became Morris Law Group after
Pickering departed for the bench and
partner Bill Peterson left.
“I said, if you do get elected, along with not
being able to have anything to do with what
my firm is involved with, now we can’t even
talk business when we are home,” says Morris.
“We just have to keep our lives completely
Born in Sacramento, Morris was raised
separate. But we have other interests.”
There are the dogs, and the ranch he
came across in a remote part of central
Nevada while on a backcountry camping
trip. They bought it, and today after 17 years,
it has become a cherished getaway when
their schedules allow.
along U.S. Highway 50 by a waitress mother
and a plumber dad. The family came to
Reno in 1947, where his parents divorced.
They went their separate ways, dad to Wake
Island and mom to a distant part of Nevada,
but Morris stayed in the Reno-Sparks metro
area, working while in high school and
living at boarding houses and motels. After
graduating from high school, Morris worked
in an auto parts shop. One day his parents
showed up unexpectedly, told him they were
remarrying, and asked Morris if he would be
their best man. The boss gave him the day
off, with pay.
He went to the University of Nevada, Reno,
then studied law at the University of Texas.
The lawyer prefers Steve to Stephen,
though he was named for the great American
songwriter Stephen Foster, whom his father
admired. “While I did too, I thought Stephen
was a little archaic,” he explains.
If he was a lawyer by the time he arrived
in Las Vegas in 1968, Morris also was a
trumpeter, one good enough to sit in on
occasion with the late-night jam sessions that
took place when hotel show band musicians
were off the job and ready to play for
themselves. Morris even took trumpet lessons
from Cliff Juergens. “Those guys would get
together at a local pub at 2 am,” he recalls.
“Gosh I found that so exciting. But it was
incredibly difficult to play to 4 in the morning
and then go to work the next morning.”
Work was at the firm of Sam Lionel, where
he met his wife Kris Pickering, a fellow
lawyer. He left Lionel, taking several others
from the firm, because he wanted to do more
trial work. Morris came to Las Vegas not
long after the Nevada Legislature passed the
Corporate Gaming Act, the legislation that
cleared the way for corporate ownership of
casinos. It was twilight of the kind of colorful
entrepreneurs that Martin Scorsese likes to
make movies about. Morris got a flavor of
the old ways.
“For a period of time I got acquainted with
one of those older but notorious folks, Moe
Dalitz,” he says. An alleged mobster and
former bootlegger, Dalitz was an owner of the
Desert Inn and the Stardust Hotel-Casino.
“I have to say he was one of the nicest
human beings I have ever encountered and
an incredible civic booster,” Morris says. “He
was one of those who established public
radio in Las Vegas.” Morris should know:
He was the first chairman of Nevada Public
Radio. He got Dalitz and Del Webb Corp.,
the company of another Vegas founder
Delbert “Del” Webb, to contribute to the
birth of Nevada Public Radio. Morris recalls
a conversation in which he asked Del Webb
Corp. officers for a contribution. “Next thing
I knew I had a courier delivery of mature
bonds from Israel that Del Webb had
purchased long before. That got us off and
running to build the first public radio station
But the old guys were leaving, and sleeker
CEOs were taking their place. One of the new
breed of casino owners was Kirk Kerkorian.
Morris knows him, too. One of the biggest
cases of Morris’ career involved Kerkorian’s
MGM Grand. The largest hotel in the world
when it opened in 1973, the MGM Grand had
become an established landmark when a
fire spread through the casino in 1980. It was
the second largest loss of life in a hotel fire in
American history; 85 people died.
In the wake of the fire, Morris became
chief local counsel for the MGM Grand
as it fielded several huge lawsuits. First,
he reached a settlement with survivors
and relatives of those who died in the fire.
Then Morris helped handle an equally
complex suit between the hotel and its
insurance companies over the payout. It
took six years to dispose of both cases. The
high-profile cases helped establish Morris
as a methodical litigator who didn’t lose
concentration or drive over the course of
years. In fact, an American Lawyer profile
suggested his intensity was a major factor in
shaping the insurance settlement.
Another memorable case involved a
battle between two hotel owners, and two
sides of Vegas, both of whom claimed
the right to the name Plaza Hotel. Morris
represented the El-Ad Group, which owns
the Plaza Hotel in New York and wanted to
build a $5 billion, 6,700 unit development
on the Strip. El-Ad Group wanted the
Vegas property to be under the Plaza
name, but they were sued by the owners
of an established, low-budget downtown
hotel-casino that had billed itself under
various Plaza-related names over the
years, including Union Plaza and the