New code of conduct raises bar for Black Robe Club

Starting Jan. 19, judges and judicial candidates must abide by a new code of conduct. One of the things I particularly like is that judges are advised against looking the other way when they see other judges misbehave.

In the old code, the judge had to have knowledge of “known misconduct” before reporting a lawyer or another judge. Now the standard is “having knowledge that raises a substantial question” about a judge or attorney. Then the judge has a duty to report the behavior.

Domestic violence, sexual harassment and substance abuse can be found in the judiciary, just like the rest of the society.

Certainly in the most egregious cases, judges don’t look the other way. Elizabeth Halverson and Nicholas Del Vecchio come quickly to mind. Blessedly, neither remains on the bench in Clark County. Incompetence on her part and sexual peccadilloes on his part cost both their prestigious positions.

But members of the Black Robe Club know things that go on in chambers and courtrooms. They know, and now they have a stronger obligation to report it. And their staffs will know if judges know and do nothing.

I’m not talking about the little things. Like how some judges use their staffs to baby-sit their children or walk their dogs or run their errands. I hear some bailiffs are treated like personal servants. But with the exception of Halverson’s bailiff, who said it was demeaning to be told to rub her feet and shoulders, none of the others has complained publicly. They seem to think it’s part of their duties. At least if they want to keep their jobs.

The Nevada Judicial Code Commission worked hard on the first update of the code in 18 years. Recommendations from the American Bar Association were embraced in most cases.

But there were two areas where the Nevada Supreme Court rejected the commissioners’ ideas. After talking to five of the 19 members, I sense a few are unhappy the justices rejected those two proposals. I’ll cover the dispute over what the Supreme Court didn’t do in Monday’s column.

Professor Jeffrey Stempel of the Boyd School of Law at UNLV, the most outspoken critic of what the court didn’t do to change the code of conduct, said, “There’s a lot of good things in there that none of us can take much credit for because they were in the American Bar Association recommendation.”

Commissioner Laura Fitzsimmons, an attorney, said, “The best thing is that the court adopted the commissioners’ recommendations that basically brought Nevada into line with the more enlightened states. … This was a good effort and it went a long way to ensuring that judges in Nevada behave ethically.”

Bill Maupin, who didn’t run for re-election to the Nevada Supreme Court but returned to practicing law, chaired the commission. “It had started one of the most important debates about the judicial selection process that has happened in years,” he said.

The best thing to come out of it? “The examination by a cross section of judges and members of the State Bar about how judges should conduct themselves in their public and private activities,” Maupin replied.

History tells us judges should be held to a higher standard. With the two exceptions, the new code seems to have raised the bar, and that’s commendable. Some of the old Wild West values that were accepted with a wink and nod in the past may not get a free pass in the future.

By rejecting two ideas tied to judicial impartiality, however, the Nevada Supreme Court drew attention to what justices didn’t want to do. And even if there are valid reasons for it, the public perception is likely to be that they rejected these ideas because they didn’t want to give up money and power.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call 702- 383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/morrison.

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