The best argument for the appointment of all judges has always been money. Lawyers contribute to candidates, who become judges who rule on cases the same lawyers bring to court. The potential for conflict is ripe in a system that should be devoid of special treatment.
But as the Legislature ponders ending open, competitive elections for state judges, the poster child for judicial appointments isn't corruption -- it's incompetence.
District Judge Elizabeth Halverson is so unqualified for the job voters gave her last year that court officials have determined she can't be trusted with a criminal docket. Chief Judge Kathy Hardcastle has transferred all of Halverson's cases to another judge. In theory, that could give Halverson time to learn a bit about procedure before she gets a fresh docket of civil cases next week.
Halverson makes Gov. Jim Gibbons appear capable, if not downright savvy.
After just four months on the bench, Halverson admitted that she broke the law when she spoke to deliberating jurors without attorneys present. This wasn't a rookie mistake. It happened twice -- in child molestation cases, no less. In one case, prosecutors struck a deal with the defendant to avoid a possible new trial. After those gaffes, the court appointed three veteran judges to hold Halverson's hand.
Apparently, the judges were so busy trying to get Halverson to understand the law they couldn't guide her on office management skills. Halverson has blown through four of her five staffers. Her original law clerk, court clerk, court recorder and bailiff have all left -- and these were people she hired.
She still needs to hire a new court recorder, but is instead asking to go with a court reporter. (A court reporter types what happens in court live, while a recorder monitors audio and video recording of the proceedings.)
There's a reason Halverson doesn't want video and audio of her proceedings, and it's not because she doesn't photograph well. Halverson wants to hide the simple fact that she's unqualified.
She spent nine years as a Family Court law clerk, researching decisions. She started her own law firm after losing that job but has never tried a case herself.
Halverson's supporters don't like it when anyone references Halverson's weight or physical limitations. In today's PC culture, apparently it's wrong to point out that a public official requires a wheelchair and oxygen tubes to get around.
To be sure, if Halverson knew the law and how to handle a trial, her fitness for office wouldn't be in question. But you don't lose four staffers in four months simply because you're incompetent. Several court sources have said the staffers in question were asked to massage away their boss' stress.
Halverson insists her staff members were happy. The court won't discuss personnel matters.
One thing court recordings might be able to prove is the allegation -- made by several attorneys -- that Halverson sleeps in open court. But Halverson has changed the angle of the camera in her courtroom so video recordings do not capture the judge. The frame captures only the attorneys or the gallery.
How convenient. Can you imagine what might happen if a video recording of Halverson in action was used as evidence in support of Senate Joint Resolution 2? Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, the resolution's main sponsor, wants to create a process whereby all state judges are appointed by a commission and, after a time, stand before voters for retention.
Although judicial appointments can be just as fraught with potential conflict and dictated by juice, few lawmakers are brave enough to stand up for the rights of voters. Halverson sure doesn't make that argument any easier.
SJR2 passed the Senate with just six "no" votes, and it will likely clear the Assembly in similar fashion. Because the resolution would amend the state constitution, it also requires voter approval. The soonest it could take effect is 2012.
In a statement released to K.C. Howard, the Review-Journal's District Court reporter, Halverson said she believes she isn't being treated with respect. "Apparently," the statement read, "there are people who cannot get over the election results." In last year's race, the best candidate for the job, Chief Deputy Attorney General Gerald Gardner, somehow didn't survive the primary, and general election voters were left to pick between Halverson and perennial candidate Bill Henderson.
The beauty of electing judges is that voters have the power to fix their mistakes. Halverson's District Court Department 23 seat will be back on the ballot next year.
With any luck, Halverson won't get any more child molestation cases to bungle. Hopefully, her actions won't free any more convicted felons from mandatory prison time. The court's damage control appears to be designed to keep Halverson from inflicting any more damage.
It's a good step.
And by 2008, voters will be better informed about the dangers of electing unqualified candidates in judicial races.
Halverson will be the perfect example.
Erin Neff's column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached at (702) 387-2906, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.