Justice Center’s chief judge steers through rocky course

When asked about her varied duties down at the Regional Justice Center, Clark County District Court Chief Judge Jennifer Togliatti manages to laugh a little.

“It’s kind of like putting out fires,” she says.

I’m beginning to suspect the chief judge wears a heat-resistant robe. Such is the skyrocketing temperatures associated with the job these days. Considering civil and criminal dockets are bursting, and there’s an ongoing FBI criminal investigation of current and former Family Court marshals, Togliatti must work hard to keep her sense of humor.

As word circulated recently inside the Justice Center that the FBI had served two subpoenas requesting records from courts officials, paranoia mixed with prognostication and rumors once again reverberated through the building. Not surprisingly, Togliatti won’t comment on the presence of FBI agents working the halls of justice.

The federal investigation, however, illustrates not only her challenge as chief judge but also the painful evolution our local court system is experiencing in 2013.

Togliatti just may be a glutton for punishment. Chief judges are elected by their colleagues to a two-year term with the possibility of one additional two-year stint. Given the ongoing investigation and the local justice system’s formidable growing pains, Togliatti would have had an easier time opting out of that second term, which she started a few months ago. Instead, she plowed forward.

“I’m in the middle of trying to make changes when it comes to the marshal division and other things,” Togliatti says. “But I don’t think any judge becomes a judge to be an administrator.”

Her tenure began amid recession-driven budget cuts despite the seemingly endless lines at the Justice Center. The legal system doesn’t stop just because there are insufficient funds to operate it at the highest level.

But it can be improved.

The chief judge’s role has grown considerably more complicated after she embarked on a plan to increase the professional standards and practices of the court’s burgeoning marshal force, which has expanded to more than 100. She hired a former FBI agent as the court’s first security director and increased the emphasis on professional standards and training. For the first time, a viable internal affairs system is in place.

Although the marshals, in general, work as a unit, the judicial marshals are appointed by individual judges and work at their direction. That has made for an awkward occurrence during the federal investigation of former marshal supervisor Steve Rushfield, who self-demoted in March after allegations he choked a woman in 2010 while she was restrained in a holding cell. While the investigation continues, former Lt. Rushfield is comfortably tucked under the wing of Family Court Judge Frank Sullivan and serves as his marshal.

Another incident under investigation concerns allegations of groping and handcuffing of a woman in 2011. And although marshal Ron Fox was fired after Monica Contreras accused him of inappropriate physical contact in a witness room in 2011, the marshal who is alleged to have handcuffed her to a chair, James Kenyon, remains employed in Family Judge William Gonzalez’s courtroom. Hearing Master Patricia Doninger was sacked after being accused of ignoring Contreras’ pleas.

The chief judge is allowed to comment on none of this, of course. It’s all part of the investigation that complicates her job, which additionally includes a busy docket of cases as well as settlement conferences, hearings on motions to disqualify judges and filing fee waivers for indigent circumstances.

Of the marshal controversy she will only say, “We’ve grown faster, quite frankly, than our policies and procedures.”

She declines to mention one of the great obstacles to dragging Southern Nevada into the modern era: ending the vestiges of a good ol’ boy network that can no longer be countenanced if our legal system is to evolve.

Instead, the chief judge says simply, “I’m committed to improving the system.”

And, when necessary, taking the heat that goes with the duty.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.

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