Banning every incompetent judge just might empty courthouse


The buzz around the Regional Justice Center is that embattled rookie District Judge Elizabeth Halverson might be too unstable and incompetent to run a courtroom.

Between alleged emotional issues and accusations that she's too inexperienced, she's been the subject of intense criticism by Chief Judge Kathy Hardcastle and some of her former courthouse subordinates.

Hardcastle and Halverson have long been at odds, and the rookie judge blames the chief judge for making her life miserable during her first five months on the bench. Their professional differences have grown very personal, and Hardcastle recently pulled Halverson's criminal cases from her docket.

Matters appeared to get worse for Halverson on May 10, when Hardcastle tossed a metaphorical stone through her window and banned her from the Regional Justice Center after a bit of courthouse melodrama that included a 911 phone call, the appearance of two personal bodyguards, and the collection of e-mail from the new judge's executive assistant.

In response, Halverson's attorneys, William Gamage and Dominic Gentile, won an emergency stay of the banishment from the Nevada Supreme Court, which could call for the equivalent of a full civil trial with all evidence and assorted judicial dirty laundry publicly displayed.

When the attorneys said Hardcastle's decision was "not only without authority but also without precedent," they weren't kidding. Examples are legion of judges botching court business or embarrassing the institution with events in their personal lives and not getting the shove by the chief judge.

If Halverson is so "incompetent" after just a few months on the bench, what does that make all the other judges whose actions on and off the bench have generated so much embarrassment?

The list is long and newsprint is expensive, so I will highlight only a few of many.

Who can forget the late Judge Paul Goldman, a man of formidable legal learning and experience, who threatened to jail an air-conditioning repairman working too loudly?

If memory serves, Goldman also came close to incarcerating an elderly woman for a similarly invisible violation.

And there's the late Judge Jeffrey Sobel, another fellow with undeniable experience and intellect, who was caught running his court not in his black robe, but at home in his bathrobe. Sobel was known as a knowledgeable but arrogant fellow who wasn't above ridiculing anyone who came before him.

In Family Court, there's Judge Steven Jones, who once had his pregnant wife arrested for domestic battery, briefly jailed his daughter, was himself arrested on a domestic violence charge (later dismissed), and insists on keeping company with a felonious ex-brother-in-law.

Starts to put Halverson's idiotic decision to bring two bodyguards to court into perspective, doesn't it?

Articles on the Halverson-Hardcastle mud-wrestling contest have certainly embarrassed the court, but that's nothing new. Judge Donald Mosley is among District Court's most experienced veterans, but I'd like to have a dollar for every time I've read a story about one of his angry ex-girlfriends. "One Life to Live" doesn't have that many plot twists and broken hearts.

As for rookie mistakes, consider the rocky start of District Judge Jessie Walsh. She had so much trouble early in her career that attorneys avoided her courtroom in droves. In 2004, 117 of 433 District Court peremptory challenges were in Walsh's court. Pigpen didn't have that many people avoiding him.

Back in Family Court, who can forget Hearing Master Sylvia Beller, who ordered a 16-year-old defendant to disrobe because she believed he was wearing a gang-related T-shirt?

The Judicial Discipline Commission reprimanded Beller, but she wasn't locked out of the courthouse.

You can fill a CAT bus with all the judges who have exercised questionable judgment in sealing cases for big contributors and well-connected businessmen in this community.

Only a few reporters put heat on them.

Does Hardcastle have the right to take away Halverson's criminal cases and lock her out of the courthouse?

"We feel that those were forms of discipline, and as such fall outside of what is permitted by the Constitution and state law," Gamage said.

Some form of disciplinary action may be in order for Halverson, but it should be left to the proper authority. And if the voters don't like her, they can remove her from office.

Start throwing stones around Southern Nevada's justice system, and not many windows will go unbroken.

John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 383-0295.

 

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