Justices question removal

CARSON CITY — Supreme Court justices on Thursday questioned the fairness of the Judicial Discipline Commission’s decision to temporarily suspend District Judge Elizabeth Halverson when charges to remove her permanently still have not been filed.

"Why, as of today, have no formal charges been filed?" Justice Jim Hardesty asked Dorothy Nash Holmes, the commission’s lawyer. "It does seem unfair."

Hardesty’s comments came during an hour-long oral argument hearing in which Halverson’s lawyers challenged the suspension and sought her reinstatement as a judge in Clark County.

Hardesty and other justices noted that unless the discipline commission acts quickly, Halverson could remain temporarily suspended from handling cases in District Court through next year’s election.

In response to questions from Justice Ron Parraguirre, Holmes admitted Halverson could file for re-election in January, then be re-elected in November, but could not serve as long as the suspension remained in effect.

"Our investigation is almost done," she said. "We are moving almost at lightning speed compared with other cases."

But Holmes did not give a specific time when a formal case will be filed against the judge.

Halverson was temporarily suspended by the commission on May 10 after complaints were filed accusing her of bizarre behavior that included mistreating staff members, hiring her own security force, sleeping during cases and having illegal communication with jurors.

Holmes argued Halverson was "a terrible black eye for the judiciary" and that she was suspended for a "conglomeration of horrible behavior."

The commission conducted a closed door hearing July 16 with Halverson and then suspended her from serving as a judge on July 25.

She appealed the temporary suspension to the Supreme Court. Justices are expected to make a decision in a few days on her request to lift the suspension.

Halverson did not attend Thursday’s hearing in Carson City.

"There was no reason for her to be here," said her Las Vegas lawyer, Dominic Gentile.

Gentile said few people involved in appeals before the court show up for oral arguments.

Audio of the hearing was broadcast over the Supreme Court’s Web site so Halverson and anyone else could have listened.

The broadcast was the first ever of a Supreme Court proceeding. Similar broadcasts will be conducted for future Supreme Court oral arguments. Justices hope to acquire video teleconference equipment and begin video broadcasts over the Internet in the future.

During the hearing, Gentile noted that Halverson continues to draw her $130,000 a year salary, but "that is not why a judge becomes a judge."

Halverson’s co-counsel, John Arrascada, repeatedly emphasized that the discipline commission lacked the legal authority to suspend her before holding a formal proceeding on specific charges filed against her.

"There has to be a proceeding, and no proceeding was conducted," he said.

They asked the court to review laws governing the commission, lift the suspension and allow Halverson to return to the bench.

Arrascada said concerns about Halverson’s behavior ended after she changed her initial staff. He said she slept on the bench only once and that was because she was taking a drug to treat a medical problem.

"She was doing a fine job," Arrascada said.

Holmes said the commission was not obligated to grant the special hearing for Halverson in July, but did so to ensure she was given a fair shake.

Holmes said she has not finished with all the charges that will be brought against Halverson. She said at least three witnesses said Halverson slept on the bench every day. Holmes said the judge directed her staff to spy on other staff members.

"By any standard, her conduct did not lead to confidence in the judiciary," she said.

Justice Nancy Saitta challenged Arrascada’s statements that Halverson was doing a fine job.

"Interfering with the jury system is not a serous infraction of the administration of the justice system?" Saitta asked. "Failing to pay attention, sleeping or otherwise, does not seriously affect the administration of the justice system?"

Arrascada and Gentile served as the primary lawyers in another case involving a prominent female Nevada politician.

They successfully represented the late state Controller Kathy Augustine when she fought impeachment proceedings before the Legislature in 2004.

Although Augustine was impeached and convicted for violating campaign ethics law, she was not removed from office. She was controller until her death on July 11, 2006. Her husband, Chaz Higgs, was convicted in June of murder.

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