Judicial discipline

A unanimous Nevada Supreme Court Thursday upheld the temporary suspension of Clark County District Judge Elizabeth Halverson by the state’s Commission on Judicial Discipline.

Judge Halverson was elected to the bench a year ago. Six months after she took office, the Discipline Commission conducted a closed-door meeting with the judge on July 16, discussing allegations that she slept during trials, had improper communications with jurors and mistreated her staff.

The commission temporarily suspended her from the bench on July 25. Temporary judges are now hearing her calendar, though she still collects her $130,000-a-year salary.

The Supreme Court discussed in its opinion some of the evidence presented to the panel that led to the suspension.

A Clark County deputy district attorney testified that Judge Halverson dined and conversed with a jury during its deliberations in a child molestation case, without the respective attorneys present. That’s extremely unusual. A former bailiff testified that a typical day in Judge Halverson’s office included helping Halverson, who is obese and has several health problems, change her shoes and deal with her oxygen tanks.

The bailiff was also expected to prepare and serve her lunch and cover her with a blanket while she rested in her chambers.

Judge Halverson, who insisted during her campaign and still insists that her health problems would not affect her ability to perform the job, has since insisted she did not sleep on the bench, as charged, but merely found herself from time to time in a diabetic coma in which she appeared “unresponsive, although I could hear what was going on around me.” She said her staff was advised to warn her when they noticed such episodes coming on.

She also reports that on at least one occasion staff members were asked to take turns pounding on her back or shoulder in an attempt to ease a muscle cramp so that she could rise from the bench.

Judge Halverson appealed her suspension to the Supreme Court. But the high court ruled that the commission, which has the power to remove judges from office, “is authorized to impose an interim suspension during any stage of its proceedings, both before and after issuance of a formal statement of charges.”

The court has clearly done the right thing, here. For the Judicial Discipline Commission to do its job, of course, it needs the power to suspend judges when it perceives there is a threat to the proper administration of justice or the public’s confidence in the courts.

The Supreme Court did, however, caution the commission that a temporary suspension must not be allowed to spin out so long that it becomes, de facto, permanent. Long before her current term expires, the panel must either restore the judge to the bench (not too likely, given that Judge Halverson still denies there was ever any problem) or initiate formal proceedings, allowing the judge to present her side.

Dorothy Nash Holmes, the commission’s special prosecutor, told the justices the commission has been moving at “lightning speed” to do just that.

They sure do talk different in court.

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