Delays in discipline criticized

District Judge Jeffrey Sobel was conducting a pretrial conference in his chambers in April 2002 when he crossed the line of ethical behavior by confronting one lawyer about his failure to contribute to Sobel’s re-election campaign and another who had attended a campaign event for the judge’s opponent.

Months earlier, Sobel had raised the ire of another lawyer who had a case pending before him by demanding to know why the lawyer had given less to his campaign than to his opponent’s.

Sobel’s actions in both instances were serious enough to attract the attention of the Nevada Judicial Discipline Commission, but more than three years passed before the commission reprimanded him and barred him from the bench. By then, Sobel had long since lost his bid for re-election.

Critics of the state’s judicial discipline process, including Clark County’s chief district judge and the former chief justice of the Nevada Supreme Court, say the commission is taking too long to investigate complaints. They offer the Sobel case as a prime example.

“I think the Judicial Discipline Commission’s losing credibility in this state because of the delay between when a complaint is filed and the final resolution of that complaint,” said Chuck Short, Clark County District Court administrator. “That time lag is excessive.”

Short said the commission should need no more than a year to investigate and rule on a complaint, but he estimated the process has been taking, on average, twice that long.

He said Chief District Judge Kathy Hardcastle reported two judges and one hearing master to the commission many months ago and continues to wait for a resolution of those matters.

He declined to elaborate, other than to say he knows that two of the complaints have been pending for nearly a year. Hardcastle would not say how many complaints she has filed and wouldn’t discuss any specifics regarding those complaints.

That’s because it’s not just a slow process, it’s also a mostly secret one.

Under Nevada law, all commission proceedings must remain confidential until the panel makes a finding that probable cause for disciplinary action exists. The commission then designates a prosecuting attorney to file a formal statement of charges, and the case proceeds to a public hearing.

Anyone who violates the confidentiality requirement may be held in contempt and fined or may be put in jail.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada filed a federal lawsuit against the commission in 2002 in an unsuccessful effort to overturn the confidentiality requirement. ACLU attorney Allen Lichtenstein recently said his organization is preparing to revisit the issue with a new lawsuit.

notify, then wait

Hardcastle said judges have an obligation to notify the commission whenever they learn about judicial misconduct. She said the commission should determine within 90 days whether probable cause exists for disciplinary action. If the panel makes that finding, she said, it should conclude the matter no later than nine months after the filing of the complaint.

“If we know there’s a problem with a judge … it needs to be addressed quickly,” the chief judge said.

In recent months, Hardcastle has publicly criticized District Judge Elizabeth Halverson. Hardcastle went so far as to bar the newly elected judge from the courthouse. Halverson took the fight to the Nevada Supreme Court, arguing that only the Judicial Discipline Commission had the authority to punish her.

Records in the case, which is pending, include allegations that Halverson required her bailiff to rub her feet and give her back massages. Staff members also complained that their duties included keeping Halverson awake in court.

In addition, Halverson has faced accusations that she acted improperly when she met with jurors in two cases outside the presence of attorneys.

Hardcastle’s response to Halverson’s filing with the high court boiled down to her saying that she had to take action immediately to protect the public, people who work in the courthouse and the integrity of the judicial system itself.

In other words, Hardcastle couldn’t wait a year or more for the discipline commission.

David Sarnowski, the commission’s general counsel and executive director since March 2002, contends that complaints rarely take more than a year to adjudicate. But the commission compiles no statistics on the length of time it spends on cases, he said.

Sometimes, the commission has good reasons for taking longer than a year to resolve complaints, Sarnowski said.

“The main focus is on making sure the process is fair for the complainants, the judges and the public,” he said.

The commission’s seven members work part time and are scheduled to meet just once a quarter. They live in various parts of the state.

“It’s extremely difficult to conduct business of this kind when everyone’s in a different place,” Sarnowski said.

Multiple or serial complaints against a judge also can prolong an investigation, he said, and sometimes an investigation leads to information about other misconduct “or what appears to be misconduct.”

“We would rather get it right than act too fast,” Sarnowski said. Sometimes, he said, the commission chooses to wait for action in underlying court cases.

“The commission takes great pains to not interfere with litigation,” Sarnowski said.

In the Sobel case, the executive director said, the commission tried to accommodate Sobel, who requested delays.

Behind-the-scenes negotiations also added to the time needed for the commission to resolve the matter, he said.

Like Sarnowski, District Judge Mark Denton, a member of the discipline commission for more than six years, disputed the assertion that complaints have been languishing. Denton said the commission could “perhaps” move more quickly if it met more often, but he has witnessed no “dragging of feet.”

“These cases do take a lot of time to properly develop and handle. They’re not just simple matters, in most cases.”

TWO YEARS, FOUR YEARS

Bob Rose, former chief justice of the Nevada Supreme Court, knows about the difficulties the commission faces. Still, he believes the process needs to be speeded up. When he formed the Article 6 Commission last year to find ways of improving the state’s judicial system, he put the judicial discipline process on the panel’s list of issues to explore.

“Some of the cases seemed to be taking a long time to be disposed of,” Rose said.

He cited the cases of Sobel, Family Court Hearing Master Sylvia Beller and Las Vegas Municipal Judge George Assad as examples.

The Judicial Discipline Commission reprimanded Beller in June 2006 for ordering the removal of a 16-year-old defendant’s shirt and belt during a sentencing hearing. The incident had occurred almost two years earlier, in August 2004, and received extensive publicity.

A videotape of the court hearing showed the handcuffed teenager’s pants falling to the floor, exposing his boxer shorts, after his belt was removed.

Beller was punished for her behavior in 2004, but not by the Judicial Discipline Commission. Beller’s supervisor required her to serve a four-week unpaid suspension and to take at least 20 hours of ethics training. He also barred her from hearing juvenile cases.

In making its ruling in 2006, the Judicial Discipline Commission took into account Beller’s prior punishment and declined to punish her further.

“They can’t be effective if they’re going to take that long,” Hardcastle said.

In Assad’s case, he had detained a defendant’s girlfriend without any legal basis. The woman had gone to court on her boyfriend’s behalf in March 2003, and Assad ordered his bailiff to take her into custody to coerce her to call her boyfriend and persuade him to come to court.

The commission reprimanded Assad in February, almost four years after he had detained the woman.

“What good does it do to take action four years later?” Hardcastle asked.

During that length of time, she said, the judge in question either will have improved or continued to engage in misconduct. Even a year is excessive, she argued.

“It’s not fair to anybody involved in the process if they drag the process out that long — not the public, not the courts, not the judge,” Hardcastle said.

Likewise, Rose said claims of improprieties by judges should be investigated as quickly as possible, either to vindicate the judge or to address the judge’s unethical behavior.

“Getting to these things as quickly as possible is really important for the judiciary and the public,” he said.

Rose and Short each said the process seems to have slowed in recent years. Neither man could identify a cause of the apparent trend, but Rose said he hopes the Article 6 panel will come up with some answers.

“Maybe they need more help,” Rose said of the discipline commission. “Maybe they need more personnel. Maybe they need to have the commission sit in panels.”

Statistics show that the commission considered 170 complaints in 1996. That fiscal year, the commission dismissed 139 of the complaints and assigned the other 31 for investigation.

By comparison, the commission considered 164 complaints in fiscal 2006 and assigned 40 for investigation.

Sarnowski does not say that the commission needs more money. In fiscal 2006, the commission’s budget was $501,000, but it returned nearly 9 percent of the funds at year’s end.

“Historically, since I’ve been here, we’ve actually returned money,” Sarnowski said.

Short said he thinks the commission needs a larger staff.

“It seems to me there’s too much work for two people to handle in an expedient fashion,” the court administrator said.

The discipline commission’s staff consists of Sarnowski and a full-time management analyst. It contracts with private investigators to investigate complaints.

JUSTICE DELAYED, JUSTICE DENIED

Las Vegas attorney Robert Murdock, a witness in the Sobel investigation, thinks the discipline commission should be disbanded.

“I don’t think any of the sitting judges right now are afraid of the committee,” Murdock said. “I think they’re afraid of the electorate.”

Murdock became involved in the Sobel investigation after the judge called his office in 2001 and instructed the lawyer’s secretary to pull him out of a deposition. Sobel wanted Murdock to donate to his re-election campaign.

“I felt as though I was being strong-armed,” recalled Murdock, who gave the judge $500.

Later, Sobel wrote Murdock a letter in which the judge demanded to know why the lawyer had given a larger contribution to his opponent, Jackie Glass.

That prompted Murdock to ask Sobel to recuse himself from a civil case the lawyer had pending in his court. The judge did.

Murdock said he did not file a complaint with the Judicial Discipline Commission over the matter and does not know who did, but he received a subpoena and testified about Sobel’s conduct during a commission hearing held after the judge was defeated.

Murdock said he has no idea why the commission took so long to take action against Sobel, who died last year.

“Justice delayed is justice denied, and in that case, I think Jeff got justice denied,” Murdock said. “And that’s not saying that Jeff didn’t do wrong, but the punishment needs to fit the crime and needs to be handed down swiftly.”

Punishment that comes too long after the offense has no meaning and “makes a mockery out of everything,” the lawyer said.

“At that point, it’s revenge or retribution,” said Murdock, who thinks the commission treated Sobel too harshly and “kind of kicked him when he was down.”

Sobel also was already out. Glass defeated Sobel in the 2002 election with 61 percent of the vote.

“Frankly, what really happened in that case is that the election system of judges worked,” Murdock said.

But the voters don’t always come into play under the current system and may have a reduced role in the future.

Some judicial officers receive their positions by appointment and never face voters. They include temporary judges known as judges “pro tem,” senior judges and hearing masters. Their conduct, like that of elected judges, falls under the purview of the Judicial Discipline Commission.

And this year, Nevada has seen a push to change the way judges are chosen. The proposed new process would give voters the choice of either retaining or rejecting sitting judges and justices.

When vacancies arise, a selection committee would recommend candidates to the governor for appointment.

Halverson and Jones

Highly publicized controversies involving two elected Clark County judges during the past year have many wondering where the Judicial Discipline Commission stands on them.

Halverson has made headlines regularly since joining the bench in January. After attorneys began complaining about Halverson’s performance, Hardcastle asked her to meet with three veteran district judges.

According to an affidavit prepared by one of those judges, Stewart Bell, the group tried to warn Halverson that the discipline commission could remove her, but she refused to listen.

The affidavit claims courthouse staff had “made allegations which, if sustained, would amount to violations of law, county policy and union contracts.”

In April, the veteran judges recommended that Hardcastle take away Halverson’s criminal cases, and the chief judge did so. Then, in May, Hardcastle barred Halverson from the Regional Justice Center, claiming she put courthouse security at risk when she brought her two personal bodyguards into secured areas of the courthouse.

The move prompted Halverson to seek intervention from the Nevada Supreme Court, which allowed Halverson to return to work. She continues to hear civil cases.

Family Court Judge Steven Jones also has continued to hear cases since his arrest last year following a domestic dispute with his live-in girlfriend, Amy McNair.

Jones was acquitted of the battery charge, but McNair testified that FBI agents had asked her whether Jones was associating with known felons. News media in Las Vegas have reported extensively about Jones’ association with two felons.

Questions also arose about Jones’ ethics after he accepted three separate campaign contributions from Beller’s husband, attorney Neil Beller.

Neil Beller made the contributions, totaling $4,500, three months after Jones chose to suspend the hearing master rather than fire her. Jones was Family Court’s presiding judge, and thus Sylvia Beller’s supervisor, when she was disciplined by the court in 2004.

Neither Hardcastle nor Short would comment on the controversies surrounding Halverson and Jones.

“A strong and expedient judicial discipline process will facilitate public trust in judges and their decisions, and that’s the bottom line,” Short said.

ad-high_impact_4
News
Mount Charleston Gets Heavy Snow, Fog
Mount Charleston saw heavy snow today, and fog in lower elevations as a cold front swept across the Las Vegas Valley. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Krystal Whipple arrested in Arizona
Krystal Whipple, charged in the killing of a Las Vegas nail salon manager over a $35 manicure, is expected to return to Nevada to face a murder charge.
Holocaust survivor on acceptance
Holocaust survivor Celina Karp Biniaz, who was the youngest person on Schindler’s List, talks about the most important message for people to understand from her life and experiences.
Holocaust survivor speaks about telling her story
Holocaust survivor Celina Karp Biniaz, who was the youngest person on Schindler’s List, tells of opening up about her experiences during Sunday’s event at Temple Sinai.
Jesus Jara State of the Schools address
Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara delivers his State of the Schools address on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. (Amelia Pak-Harvey/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Michael Naft sworn in to Clark County Commission
Michael Naft, chosen by Gov. Steve Sisolak to be his replacement on the Clark County Commission, was sworn into office on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. (Shea Johnson/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
CES Opening Party in Omnia Nightclub at Caesars Palace
CES conventioneers packed Omnia Nightclub at Caesars Palace, and let loose as they danced to DJs into the night. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Las Vegas police piecing together details of fatal shooting
Six hours after the fact, Las Vegas homicide detectives worked to reconstruct the scene of a shooting early Jan. 7 that left one man dead in the southeast valley. (Rio Lacanlale/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Dyer Lawrence explains college football playoff system proposal
Las Vegan Dyer Lawrence has a new idea for a college football playoff system that includes a unique scheduling component called National Call Out Day. (Ron Kantowski/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Death row inmate Scott Dozier found dead in his cell
Nevada death row inmate Scott Dozier is dead. Dozier’s death ends his legal odyssey, which began in 2007 when he was convicted in the 2002 murder of Jeremiah Miller, but does little to clarify what’s next for Nevada’s death penalty.
I-15 southbound near Primm closed after ‘major crash’
A rollover crash Saturday morning involving at least nine vehicles on southbound Interstate 15 near Primm caused an hourslong traffic delay. Traffic was backed up to Sloan, live traffic cameras show. (Rio Lacanlale/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Death Valley visitors deal with shutdown
Visitors staying at the Furnace Creek Campground were forced to move from the campground following health and safety concerns due to lack of resources during the partial government shutdown at Death Valley National Park in Calif., on Friday, Jan. 4, 2019. Richard Brian Las Vegas Review-Journal @vegasphotograph
Half of homicides in Henderson for 2018 domestic violence related
Lt. Kirk Moore of the public information office of the city of Henderson police department speaks to the Review-Journal in Henderson, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. Henderson saw a slight increase in homicides in the past year. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Governor-elect Steve Sisolak stops by Las Vegas Boys and Girls Club
Governor-elect Steve Sisolak kicks off his tour to Carson City, which will take him from Las Vegas, through Tonopah, and up to the capital city. First stop is the Downtown Boys & Girls Club.
Certificates for renewing wedding vows in Clark County
The Marriage License Bureau in Clark County began issuing a Certificate of Vow Renewal to married couples who are renewing their wedding vows on Jan. 3, 2019. (Shea Johnson/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas flu season better than last year (so far)
Dr. Fermin Leguen, chief medical officer and director of clinical services at the Southern Nevada Health District, said there were 24 flu-related deaths at this point in the flu season. No deaths have been reported so far this year. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
The Las Vegas Valley’s First Baby of 2019
The first 2019 baby in the Las Vegas Valley was Melialani Chihiro Manning, born at 12:10 a.m. at Henderson Hospital. (Briana Erickson/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas NYE Fireworks - VIDEO
The full show: A spectacular view from the rooftop of the Trump International Hotel as 80,000 pyrotechnics illuminated the Las Vegas Strip at the stroke of midnight. Fireworks by Grucci choreographed launches from the Stratosphere, the Venetian, Treasure Island, Caesars Palace, Planet Hollywood, Aria and MGM Grand.
Snow in Henderson on New Year's Eve morning
Light snow flurries in Anthem Highlands in Henderson on Monday morning, the last day of 2018.
Sources: Henderson Constable may face more charges
Henderson Constable Earl Mitchell may face additional charges ... stemming from his spending of county funds, sources said. Mitchell was indicted earlier this month on five felony theft and fraud charges ... after a Las Vegas Review-Journal story questioned his spending. But grand jury records show even more extensive spending including ... an $800 dinner at steakhouse ... nearly 200 atm withdrawals mostly at gambling establishments ... and even Disneyland tickets. But his attorney plans to ask a judge to dismiss the charges.
Las Vegas NYE Restrictions and Enhanced Security
If you are planning to celebrate New Year's Eve on the Las Vegas Strip or Fremont Street, be aware that you are not allowed to bring backpacks, coolers, strollers or glass. There will also be an increase in security to ensure safe celebrations across town.
Catholic Charities serves up 53rd annual Christmas dinner
Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada and more than 100 volunteers served 1,000 Christmas meals to Southern Nevada's homeless and less fortunate. (K.M. Cannon Las Vegas Review-Journal @kmcannonphoto)
Henderson couple adds another school to their generosity
Bob and Sandy Ellis of Henderson, who donate to several Clark County School District schools, have added Matt Kelly Elementary in Las Vegas to their list of schools where every student gets new shoes, socks and a toy. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Jeffrey Martin Added To Nevada's Black Book
Martin was one of four men convicted of theft and cheating at gambling in 2016 in Clark County District Court and sentenced to prison. The Nevada Gaming Commission voted unanimously Thursday to include Martin in the black book.
Raiders Stadium Timelapse
Construction on the new Raiders stadium continues in Las Vegas.
Buffalo Wild Wings security video
Security footage from a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant in southwest Las Vegas captured a driver who repeatedly crashed into a vehicle in a failed attempt to squeeze into a tight parking spot.
The Magical Forest at Opportunity Village
Opportunity Village's Magical Forest added 1 million lights and a synchronized music show visible from all over the forest this year. The holiday attraction, which began in 1991, has a train, rides, food and entertainment along with the light displays. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Navigating the new I-515 southbound to 215 Beltway ramp configuration
After opening at 5 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018, the new Interstate 515 southbound to the 215 Beltway westbound freeway ramp configuration caused confusion amongst motorist. Here’s how to navigate the new ramp. (Mick Akers/ Las Vegas Review-Journal).
A record breaking donation of nearly $9 million to Girls Scouts of Southern Nevada
A record breaking donation of property valued at nearly $9 million was made to the Girls Scouts of Southern Nevada by the Charles and Phyllis M. Frias Charitable Trust. Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal. @bizutesfaye
Kerry Clasby thanks the community for support after California fire damage
Intuitive Forager Kerry Clasby talks about the lessons of accepting help as she has gone through the Woolsey Fire disaster, in which she lost many of her belongings. About 100 people were on hand for an event that raised about $7,000.
TOP NEWS
News Headlines
Home Front Page Footer Listing
Circular
You May Like

You May Like