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Editorial: Order in the court?

Symptoms of Black Robe Disease can include arrogance, self importance, impatience, angry outbursts and indifference. Attorneys will tell you the malady is far more common than once believed.

Officials with Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice believe they have spotted a raging case of the illness in a Las Vegas courtroom. The group has filed a complaint with the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline arguing that Justice of the Peace Conrad Hafen appears to be inflicted.

The organization is “concerned about the conduct that’s been taking place in that courtroom,” said Lance Hendron, president of the organization, which includes about 150 defense attorneys.

Last week, Judge Hafen ordered a public defender handcuffed and sent her to sit in the jury box after she insisted that her client did not deserve jail time for a petty crime.

In another instance, the judge in April threw a lawyerless defendant behind bars for two weeks on a contempt charge. It wasn’t the first time Judge Hafen, who assumed the bench in 2010, had taken such an extreme step.

In December, he became perturbed at a man representing himself while facing trespassing charges, interrupting the accused as he tried to query a witness. A transcript reveals that a seemingly innocuous situation escalated quickly after the judge objected to the defendant’s line of questioning and then suddenly exclaimed, “OK, I’ve had enough. You’re now in contempt. … Ten days. That’s what we’re going to do. Ten days.”

When the man tried to apologize and replied that he was “just trying to defend” himself, Judge Hafen shot back, “You want to keep it up, and I’ll give you another 10 days.”

To be sure, maintaining order and decorum in a courtroom can be challenging under the best of circumstances. It’s often a struggle to balance the need for a firm and authoritative hand with the importance of promoting an environment of civility, decency and respect.

Perhaps these three incidents are atypical of what goes on in Judge Hafen’s court. But it’s worth noting that no other local jurists have been in the news lately for hammering defendants with contempt charges or directing that attorneys be handcuffed.

The complaint against the judge now goes to the disciplinary panel, which could take months to act. In the meantime, however, Judge Hafen will have to make his case before an even higher authority, the electorate. He faces two challengers in the ongoing primary election and perhaps a general election campaign.

It’s up to Las Vegas voters to decide whether Judge Hafen’s temperament will prove a fatal symptom of Black Robe Disease.

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