Yet another controversy involving Clark County District Judge Elizabeth Halverson has come to light.
A phone call from Halverson about a father involved in a child support case created a “nightmare,” Family Court Hearing Master Sylvia Beller complained in court in late April.
Earlier this year, Thomas Cecrle, a friend and former brother-in-law to Family Court Judge Steven Jones, appeared before Halverson on drug-related charges. During the same time frame, Beller was presiding over a separate case involving Cecrle’s continued failure to pay more than $40,000 in child support to his ex-wife, Mary McElhattan.
Beller removed herself from Cecrle’s child support case on April 23 and said a phone call from Halverson had provided Beller with information she should not have had. Because of that, Beller stepped aside and referred the matter to Family Court Judge Gloria Sanchez.
“These are issues that really need to be handled by the District Court judge (Sanchez) because of a District Court judge (Halverson) stepping into this action, which probably wasn’t entirely proper,” Beller said on an audiovisual recording of the hearing.
On Feb. 7, Halverson sentenced Cecrle to 90 days in the Clark County Detention Center on drug-related charges. Cecrle failed to turn himself in at the appointed time, and Halverson issued a bench warrant for his arrest.
On April 4, Halverson sentenced Cecrle to probation and more than 100 hours of community service for his failure to surrender to authorities.
The recording of Beller’s decision to step out of the Cecrle case does not reflect when Halverson made the phone call to her. What does appear clear is how Beller felt about Halverson’s call.
“She created, really, a nightmare with this thing,” Beller said on the recording.
Cecrle’s ex-wife, who is trying to recover the delinquent child support, couldn’t agree more. But McElhattan said she is the one living the nightmare, not the courts.
“Accountability? There is none,” McElhattan said last week.
Although she asked Beller to expedite her next court date, her child support matter will not be heard again until the end of this month.
“The system’s not working on my behalf,” McElhattan said. “Sometimes I ask myself why I’m even doing this.”
Cecrle’s defense attorney, Richard Schonfeld, declined to comment.
At least twice before, Halverson has found herself accused of improper communication, situations that contributed to Chief Judge Kathy Hardcastle’s decision to restrict Halverson to hearing civil cases only. Halverson is challenging Hardcastle’s authority to do so in the state Supreme Court. Halverson was elected in 2006 and took the bench in January.
The Review-Journal reported in March that Halverson had spoken to two juries hearing criminal cases before her without having attorneys present. Her actions caused requests for mistrials in both instances.
In one case, Halverson’s error resulted in prosecutors offering a deal to Armando Sotomayer, who was on trial for felony child abuse. The plea agreement reduced the charge of felony child abuse against Sotomayer to a gross misdemeanor.
Neither Halverson nor Beller was willing to comment on their phone conversation or the issues that have arisen because of that conversation.
Without knowing exactly what was said between Halverson and Beller, it’s difficult to assess how serious the matter is, said Jeff Stempel, a professor for UNLV’s Boyd Law School.
“There’s always a danger when judges are talking among themselves that they may give each other information that’s never properly admitted in court,” Stempel said.
Nevada’s Code of Judicial Conduct contains a general prohibition against ex parte communication, which is communication that takes place without all interested parties being present.
The code notes: “A judge shall not initiate ex parte communications, or consider other communications made to the judge outside the presence of the parties concerning a pending or impending proceeding.”
Exceptions exist, such as administrative or procedural matters.
Stempel said that judges do have other avenues of obtaining information that do not present the risks of judge-to-judge communication on active cases. They can request the court records, transcripts or recordings of a hearing, Stempel said. They can have a staff member contact a staff member in another judge’s office.
“The idea is for nothing of substance to happen in a case unless both parties and their lawyers are there so that they can dispute or challenge the facts,” Stempel said.
Judges who violate the code of conduct on proper communication can face serious consequences.
In 1998, former Family Court Judge Fran Fine was removed from office after the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline found she repeatedly had violated the rules on communication.
In 1995, Fine was fined and reprimanded for engaging in ex parte conversations with Family Court judges Gerald Hardcastle and Jones on a case in which she had served as counsel for one of the parties.
The question of judicial ethics matters to McElhattan, whose legal battle to obtain child support from Cecrle dates to 2004.
The case has been reassigned and postponed so often that McElhattan said she is beginning to think it’s a futile effort.
“I’ve done my part,” McElhattan said. “Why aren’t they doing theirs?”