People keep asking three questions about District Judge Elizabeth Halverson: What’s her party affiliation? How did she win? How can she be removed from the bench?
The first answer is easy: She’s a Republican.
The second: She was the lone woman in a crowded field of men, she campaigned relentlessly, and she told people what they wanted to hear, including the Review-Journal’s editorial board, which endorsed her. Former District Judge Don Chairez vouched for her in GOP circles, saying she was brilliant.
As for the third, although state laws allow impeachment and recalls, neither method has been used in Nevada against judges. The Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline is the way we ban judges from serving in Nevada. Since 1998, the commission has banned five judges from the bench.
In 2005, two Southern Nevada judges were barred from the bench, Peter LaPorta, a pro tem justice of the peace and municipal judge in Henderson, and former Clark County District Judge Jeff Sobel.
LaPorta was banned based on three issues: He failed to pay $8,000 worth of parking tickets, he practiced law though his license had been suspended, and he fraudulently took money from a client while in his chambers and wearing his judicial robes and then didn’t do the work.
The late Sobel was permanently banned from serving as an elected or appointed judge because of his improper solicitation of campaign contributions from attorneys.
Another Las Vegas judge, Family Court Judge Fran Fine, was removed from the bench for having ex parte communications about cases. Fine got a public reprimand in 1995 for ex parte communications, and in 1998, after she kept on doing it, the commission bounced her from the bench.
Two Northern Nevada judges had resigned, but the commission ruled in 2004 they could never return to the bench: former Sparks Justice of the Peace Paul Freitag, who retired in 2003 and left 48 cases undecided, and Gerlach Justice of the Peace Philip Thomas, who resigned after three drunken driving convictions.
The commission’s executive director, David Sarnowski, explained there is no set timetable for hearing cases, it depends on the complexity. The complaint becomes public only if the commission decides there is merit in going forward and after a special prosecutor writes a complaint and files it with the commission.
By law, Sarnowski could not comment on whether there is an investigation into Halverson. (I hear the commission investigators are already hard at work checking allegations.)
But, if failing to pay your debts is a partial cause for removing a judge as it was in LaPorta’s case, then Halverson’s failure to pay her $42,000 judgment from a California court over a rent-control dispute certainly is pertinent.
After Halverson moved to Las Vegas in 1995 to work as a law clerk in District Court, her sister moved into her rent-controlled San Francisco apartment. When landlords raised the rent in 2000, Halverson sued, saying she was only in Nevada temporarily. Halverson fought it all the way to the California Supreme Court, losing every step of the way.
Other issues also could lead to her losing her judgeship.
The five canons governing a judge’s behavior are fairly direct, and Canon 3 is the one that seems to be on point for Halverson: “A judge shall perform the duties of judicial office impartially and diligently.” (Sleeping on the bench and talking to the jury without attorneys present is wrong?)
“A judge shall be patient, dignified and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers and others with whom the judge deals in an official capacity.” (Don’t call lawyers liars and your clerk the anti-Christ?)
“A judge must refrain from speech, gestures or other conduct that could reasonably be perceived as sexual harassment. (No back massages and foot rubs?)
“A judge must perform judicial duties impartially and fairly.” (Telling staff how much you hate a certain law firm or attorneys who didn’t contribute to your campaign is showing bias?)
Best guess: A complaint against Halverson will become public.
But anyone who appeals a rent-control case to the California Supreme Court is likely to fight all they way, even if she has to represent herself.
If it brings disrepute on the judiciary, so be it. Not her problem.
Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call 383-0275.JANE ANN MORRISONMORE COLUMNS