Nevada Judge Faces Removal in Odd Courthouse Saga

By: Ken Ritter AP
By: Ken Ritter AP

LAS VEGAS (AP) - Within six months of being sworn in, District Court Judge Elizabeth Halverson was locked out of her courtroom by the chief judge and accused of misusing her position, tainting juries, treating her staff like personal servants and falling asleep on the bench.

Now the Clark County judge who once heard criminal and later civil cases is fighting for her judicial career in a legal battle piled with salacious tidbits and allegations of outrageous behavior.

In one report, her former courtroom bailiff said Halverson made him feel like a "house boy." He said the judge, who is obese and uses a motorized scooter instead of walking, made him put her shoes on her feet, massage her back, cover her with a blanket for naps and make sure her oxygen tank was filled.

He said she asked him, "Do you want to worship me from near or afar?"

In July, after a closed-door meeting, the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline suspended Halverson, alleging she created a hostile work environment and improperly met with jurors, which resulted in two mistrials.

The commission declared she posed "a substantial threat to the
public or to the administration of justice."

Now, almost year later, the seven-member judicial commission is preparing for a week of hearings that could result in stripping a sitting district court judge of her elected position, a rarity in Nevada legal circles.

Halverson denies the allegations, and her lawyers suggest the commission is using its 14-count complaint as a bludgeon against a
woman whose judicial abilities are being overlooked because of her
physical ailments and appearance.

"We believe the Judicial Discipline Commission has overreached," Halverson lawyer John Arrascada said. "It's apparent that some people believe her physical appearance somehow makes her unable to perform her duties as a judge."

"Last time I checked, being a judge doesn't require a beauty contest," he said.

Halverson is a lawyer who received her law degree from the University of Southern California in 1980. She says she worked as a
labor union lawyer before taking the Nevada Bar Exam in 1992. She
worked as a district court law clerk for nine years.

The case is laden with subplots. Kathy Hardcastle, the chief judge who banned Halverson, fired Halverson from her law clerk's job in 2004. Halverson then mounted an unsuccessful bid for Family Court judge against Hardcastle's former husband, Gerald Hardcastle. In 2006 she ran for and won a new District Court seat.

Kathy Hardcastle, who declined to comment, has insisted her actions against Halverson weren't personal. She assigned a panel of three senior judges to deal with Halverson.

Halverson maintained the trio of judges had no authority over her or her staff, and only seemed intent on removing her.

"My input was neither received nor solicited," Halverson swore in an affidavit after a May meeting with the judges. "They flatly refused to allow me to defend myself."

When the bailiff who complained about her was reassigned, Halverson hired her own guards and let them bypass security checks at the Regional Justice Center in Las Vegas. She then called 911 when court administrators tried to enter her office.

"I determined that I needed security as I did not feel safe with what security was being provided by the court," Halverson said in the May 14, 2007, affidavit.

Other allegations listed by the Judicial Discipline Commission paint a portrait of a judge hunkering down and using her power in odd ways: Halverson having a court clerk swear in her husband, Edward Halverson, so she could ask him if he completed chores at home; Halverson accusing aides of helping Hardcastle spy on her through the courthouse video and security network; and Hardcastle hiring a technician to try to hack into the courthouse computer system.

Jeffrey Stempel, a professor at the Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, acknowledged the conflict is a
juicy one, but said he was troubled by "other bodies micromanaging
or trying to micromanage a judge."

"Judicial removal should generally be reserved for corruption and complete incompetence or inability to do the job," Stempel said. "One question you have to ask is, 'Is this judge so bad we have to remove her before the voters have a chance to do so?"'

Amid the hullabaloo, Halverson, 50, announced a re-election bid and solicited donations on a Web site - but then started a legal challenge to avoid an election contest this year. Though banned from the courthouse, she continues to receive her $130,000-a-year salary.

Most of those involved in the rare public airing of courthouse laundry won't talk about the case, but some expect a spectacle.

Dayvid Figler, a defense lawyer and former interim justice of the peace, said he had no complaints after trying cases in Halverson's courtroom.

"In fairness, she believes she's fighting the fight of a maverick," Figler said, observing that Halverson "went on the radar really quick and refused to do anything to take herself off the radar."

"I think her position is, 'Why should I be another cog in the machine? Isn't it what the voters elected me to do, bring change?"' Figler said.

Halverson did not respond to an interview request. A shirtless man who answered the door at her home pointed to a "no trespassing" sign and ordered a reporter off the property. The yard is clean these days, after the city cited Halverson for leaving it strewn with junk and letting her murky pool stagnate.

In documents denying the allegations in the commission complaint, Halverson has blamed disgruntled employees and vindictive colleagues for the allegations.

She submitted a doctor's report attesting to her physical ability to do her job, and a therapist's report that diagnosed her with an adjustment disorder, anxiety and depression, but not paranoia.

"Although she distrusts specific people and suspects these people have malevolent motives, there appears to be sufficient evidence of this," therapist Elizabeth Delgado wrote in her May 22, 2007, letter.

Halverson's physician, Michael Jacobs, said in a May 21, 2007, letter that she is diabetic, uses a wheelchair due to osteoarthritis in her feet and knees, and needs constant oxygen to counteract the effects of sleep apnea.

Jacobs said a "hypoglycemic event" during which Halverson's blood sugar dropped may have caused a brief episode of falling asleep in court. But he said there was no physical reason Halverson can't be an effective judge.

Halverson claimed in an appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court that the commission has acted so slowly against her "ongoing struggle to protect her elected seat" that her term is being allowed to "die on the vine."

The state high court weighed in with a November ruling upholding the interim suspension. But the justices also told the commission to get on with the process and give Halverson a hearing.

The commission followed with a formal statement of charges in January. The hearing was scheduled in April, postponed and rescheduled to June.

"In any kind of 'best practices' sense, this appears to be too long," Stempel said. "The danger is you end up accusing someone and leaving them out there twisting in the wind with their reputation tarred and no day in court."

"At some point, justice delayed is justice denied," he said.

It will take "clear and convincing" evidence to remove Halverson from the bench, commission executive David Sarnowski said - between the "preponderance of evidence" standard in a civil trial and the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard needed in a criminal trial.

Figler said the wide range of allegations clouded the case.

"Ultimately, you're looking at the issue of fitness to serve in a judicial capacity," he said. "Is the question her conduct off the bench? Or is it the question of her conduct on the bench? We don't know what conduct is being sanctioned.

"I think the issues in this case are so intertwined that it's difficult to draw a lesson from it."

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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