Quarrel at bar leads to Family Court judge’s removal from custody case
Family Court Judge Vincent Ochoa has been disqualified in a case involving his opponent’s wife because of a March altercation between Ochoa and his opponent, Jason Stoffel.
June 20, 2014 - 10:43 am
A barroom quarrel between Family Court Judge Vincent Ochoa and his election opponent, Jason Stoffel, has spilled over into a Clark County custody case.
District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez disqualified Ochoa from hearing the case Friday after concluding that the March spat “creates the appearance of impropriety.”
The incident, which has been recounted in dozens of pages of court documents over the past three months, occurred on the night of March 6 at Champs bar in Ely during a State Bar of Nevada family law convention.
“It’s undisputed: He approached me,” Stoffel said Wednesday.
But Ochoa, who was elected to the Department S seat in 2010, said his opponent is using the confrontation as a publicity stunt to boost a failing campaign.
“It’s a one-minute incident in March, and he’s probably going to try to make a big thing out of it until November,” the judge said Wednesday.
Ochoa called Stoffel’s accusations “hurtful” and “embarrassing.”
According to an affidavit prepared by Stoffel, Ochoa approached him “in an aggressive manner” about 10:30 p.m. on March 6.
“Judge Ochoa put his finger in my face and yelled at me that ‘You better f—-ing quit spreading rumors about me that I fall asleep on the record,’” Stoffel wrote.
When Ochoa started to curse, according to the affidavit, Stoffel had the impression that the judge was going to physically assault him.
Stoffel then told Ochoa in a “calm and nonthreatening manner” that he did not know what he was talking about, according to the document.
“I believe Judge Ochoa used terrible judgment coming up to me to try and intimidate me, use foul language, etc., especially in the presence of other legal professionals,” Stoffel wrote.
Stoffel prepared the affidavit in support of a motion to disqualify Ochoa in all cases involving Roberts Stoffel Family Law Group.
The motion was filed in a child custody case involving Monique and Randy Miller. Stoffel’s wife and business partner, Amanda Roberts, represents Randy Miller.
According to the motion, the Ely incident happened after the trial in the Miller custody case but before Ochoa had rendered his decision.
“Attorney Amanda Roberts is of the opinion that Judge Ochoa showed bias in his written opinion resulting from the fact his seat is being challenged by Mr. Stoffel,” according to the motion.
Chief District Judge Jennifer Togliatti denied the request to disqualify Ochoa from hearing all future cases involving the Roberts Stoffel firm, then reassigned the motion to Gonzalez for a ruling regarding only the Miller case.
In granting that aspect of the motion, Gonzalez concluded that “the nature of the interaction in Ely creates the appearance of impropriety and causes the judge’s impartiality to be reasonably questioned from the date of that interaction forward.”
Despite her ruling, Gonzalez noted that she has “full confidence” in Ochoa’s ability to act impartially. She also reviewed Ochoa’s draft order in the custody case, prepared before the Ely incident, as well as his final order before concluding “that no substantive change adverse to” Randy Miller had occurred.
Roberts filed a motion for a new trial in the custody case on March 27. That motion also recounts details of the Ely confrontation.
“The altercation was solely caused by the judge who approached his opponent, the judge was seen drinking, and caused a scene to occur,” Roberts wrote.
She also accused Ochoa of using his bias against Stoffel “to improperly apply facts to this matter and/or use half-truths from the proceedings to support his unorthodox and improper decision and order.”
Ochoa admits he approached Stoffel in Ely to talk to him, but the judge denies he used profanity. Ochoa said he asked Stoffel to stop telling lies about him.
“Maybe I did wag my finger,” the judge said.
Ochoa said Stoffel denied telling people that he falls asleep on the bench, and the conversation ended with a handshake.
“The whole discussion lasted a minute,” Ochoa said. “There were a hundred attorneys there and two Supreme Court justices.”
Ochoa said he had consumed half a beer over the course of an hour and was not intoxicated.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said.
Stoffel said Family Court Judge Jennifer Elliott witnessed the confrontation and later told him she had feared for his safety. On Wednesday, Elliott’s executive assistant said the judge did not want to comment on the matter.
The candidate also said Family Court Administrator Leonard Cash was at the Ely bar and later tried to dissuade him from sharing the story with news media. According to an email from District Court spokeswoman Mary Ann Price on Wednesday, Cash will not be commenting on the incident.