If the Nevada Supreme Court upholds the suspension of District Judge Elizabeth Halverson, “then no judge is safe,” Halverson’s lawyers underscored in documents filed Monday with the court.
It will mean that the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline can thwart the will of voters by kicking even the best judges out of their elected offices without just cause, Halverson’s lawyers said.
“Every elected jurist is at the mercy of a committee with unfettered discretion to impose an interim suspension any time a complaint is investigated whether it has merit or not,” John Arrascada, one of Halverson’s lawyers, wrote in a prior filing.
The commission suspended the rookie judge in July while it investigates several allegations against her, including that she spoke to juries without attorneys present, sexually harassed her bailiff and fell asleep at the bench.
The commission’s main argument for the suspension is that Halverson “poses a substantial threat of serious harm to the public or to the administration of justice.”
Halverson has appealed, and her lawyers filed paperwork with the Supreme Court on Aug. 13 arguing that the suspension should be revoked. That filing and the commission’s response, which was made public Monday, provide a look at the arguments that each side will make in a hearing slated for Sept. 13 before the state’s high court.
Neither Halverson’s attorneys nor the lawyer for the commission, Dorothy Nash Holmes, would comment Monday.
One question Halverson is raising is whether she should be punished for past deeds that no longer affect her ability to perform her elected duties. While her former staff told commissioners that Halverson called them names such as “faux Jew” and “devil incarnate,” her most recent staff members, who are out of those jobs while Halverson is suspended, told commissioners Halverson treated them with respect.
Halverson does not pose a current threat to public, and the commission’s citation of unproven past allegations to suspend her serves only to punish Halverson, her lawyers argued.
In the commission’s response — which Halverson’s lawyers said missed the Supreme Court’s filing deadline by two hours on Friday — Nash Holmes said commissioners examined the “totality of circumstances” of Halverson’s behavior that affected the administration of the court system, forcing the court to replace her entire staff, transfer some of her former staff for protection and deal with 54 media requests, all during a legislative session.
The interim suspension was ordered to maintain the integrity of the judicial system for the public’s protection, Nash Holmes wrote.
“The fact the judge doesn’t swear or verbally assault her current staff attests to her intentional conduct,” Nash Holmes said. “The fact that Judge Halverson has been ‘on good behavior’ since she learned of the disciplinary investigation proves she is capable of tempering her anger and actions, but does not erase her prior conduct.”
Judge Stephen Dahl, Nevada Judges Association president, said jurists are watching the case, but there is not panic the commission will start abusing its authority.
“It’s not like they (commissioners) are out there holding hearings every day trying to suspend judges,” Dahl said. “These are pretty rare circumstances.”
Halverson’s attorneys are arguing that the state law that gives the commission authority to suspend judges is vague and unconstitutional. For instance, “substantial threat of serious harm” is not defined.
There is no deadline for the commission to finish its investigation, meaning commissioners could keep her on interim suspension until after the 2008 election before making a decision to file charges.
“I suspect the Supreme Court will not have a problem with the notion of interim suspension, but they might have a problem with the open-endedness,” said Jeff Stempel, a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
The commission has the authority to consider past mistakes but should consider whether she has redeemed herself, Stempel said.
The interim suspension didn’t strike him “as particularly Draconian,” he said, because Halverson keeps her title and is still collecting her pay.