Judge's prospects evaluated

Administrators at the Regional Justice Center expect District Judge Elizabeth Halverson's suspension will last at least three months.

Senior District Judge Charles Thompson will take over Halverson's courtroom and chambers on Monday, and court administrators figure Thompson will be just the first of several senior judges who will handle her cases while she is on paid leave awaiting the next decision from the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline. Senior judges are retired judges who are appointed by the Supreme Court to fill in whenever needed.

Halverson was the talk of the courthouse Thursday, where some attorneys carried around the Judicial Discipline Commission's 27-page "final order of interim suspension," sharing it with colleagues as they made the rounds from courtroom to courtroom.

"I would expect her to be gone (banned from the bench) in 90 days," said one defense attorney who asked that his name be withheld. "If this was a pool, I'd take the under on 90 days."

But he was one of several lawyers who said the commission's decision was troublesome. They felt the commission was overstepping its authority to get rid of an unpopular elected official. They said they believe the commission is gunning for her not so much because of the rookie judge's legal procedural missteps but because of the way she treated her staff.

"The real reason she got removed (suspended) was because she had the bailiff rub her feet," the defense attorney said, referring to Halverson's former bailiff Johnnie Jordan's testimony that Halverson directed him to massage her.

Halverson, who has been a judge since January, packed up her personal effects and left her courthouse office by 5 p.m. Wednesday, shortly after the commission placed her on paid suspension pending its decision about formal charges of violations of judicial codes of conduct.

"We will be demanding that they (commissioners) expedite their investigation," said Halverson's attorney, Bill Gamage.

The commission started its investigation in May. If it does decide there is probable cause to file formal charges, that moves the process, which is largely secret by law, into the public arena. The formal charges would be public documents and the hearing on those charges would be public.

The interim order of suspension was released not by the commission but by the Nevada Supreme Court.

Halverson had previously asked the state's high court to rule that Clark County Chief District Judge Kathy Hardcastle overstepped her authority when she took action against Halverson regarding some of the same matters for which the commission suspended Halverson this week. A ruling from the court on that matter was still pending Thursday.

If the commission formally charges Halverson, special prosecutor Dorothy Nash Holmes will have the burden of proving, by clear and convincing evidence, that the facts of the case justify discipline. Halverson would be given the opportunity to respond to the charges at the public hearing.

After such a hearing, the commission can dismiss the case or impose a penalty, ranging from public censure to removal from the bench.

"We are certainly looking forward to a hearing on the merits," Gamage said. "The judge wants her day in court."

Halverson continued to be unavailable to the Review-Journal for comment on Thursday.

Gamage said she and her team of lawyers are preparing to file a request for the state Supreme Court to stay the suspension while the appeal of the commission's order is drafted. Halverson contends that her right to due process was violated by the commission.

Also taking issue with the commission's handling of Halverson is the Nevada chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The organization, which is preparing to file a second federal lawsuit against the commission related to its secrecy, is objecting to the suspension process and its lack of rules.

One problem with Halverson's suspension is it has no time limit, said Gary Peck, executive director of the Nevada Chapter of the ACLU.

"They could investigate for three months, five months, 30 days; that's quite open-ended," Peck said.

David Sarnowski, executive director of the commission, said investigations typically last six months.

In the past, the commission, which was created in 1976 to investigate allegations of judicial misconduct, has issued an order of interim suspension while it investigates complaints only three times since 1996, Sarnowski said.

The commission took that approach with District Judge Gerard Bongiovanni, who was indicted on federal bribery charges and later acquitted. Bongiovanni was indicted in April 1996, and the commission suspended him with pay later that month. He then failed to advance past the primary election when he sought re-election.

Two other interim suspensions were issued in 2004, to Gerlach Township Justice of the Peace Philip Thomas, who was eventually barred from judicial office forever by the commission after receiving a number of DUIs.

Peter Laporta, a pro tem judge for the city of Henderson, was suspended in 2004, after the commission determined that he owed $8,000 to the City of Las Vegas for outstanding parking tickets and that he committed other unethical acts while acting as a judge.

The commission wound up barring Laporta from ever being a judge again in Nevada.

Another way that an elected judge can be removed from the bench in Nevada is removal by the Legislature. That has only been tried once, in the 1921 case of District Judge Frank Langan, according to State Archivist Guy Rocha.

Langan was accused of mishandling bank assets, but he survived the removal attempt because there weren't enough votes for it in the state Senate, Rocha said.

But the granddaddy of all Nevada judicial scandals, Rocha said, was that of former U.S. District Judge Harry Claiborne, who in 1986 was impeached by Congress after being indicted on bribery, fraud and tax evasion charges. He was convicted on tax evasion counts.

"She (Halverson) is definitely on the side of the more infamous," Rocha said, noting Claiborne was punished for corruption and Langan was punished for incompetency, but the main issue with Halverson seems to be her behavior in general.

"If they (commissioners) remove her, she would have cemented her place right there with the most egregious situations involving Nevada judges," he said. "If she's not removed, then she's down a notch or two."