Las Vegas Sun

August 21, 2014

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Judges step up feud, courthouse cringes

In a growing cascade of court papers and media reports in recent weeks, Judge Elizabeth Halverson of the Eighth Judicial District Court has been accused of the following:

Berating attorneys who appeared before her. Screaming at her court staff, calling them names such as "idiot," "elf " and the "anti-Christ." Making staffers give her back and feet rubs, causing them to flee her office in droves.

In the short time she's been on the bench, Halverson also has been accused of falling asleep several times during trials, and improperly speaking with a jury outside the presence of the lawyers in the case. The final straw, according to court administrators, was when she brought her personal bodyguards into her chambers, without having them first screened by courthouse security officers.

But even if Halverson were guilty of all that, should that have given Chief Judge Kathy Hardcastle the right to act the way she has?

Over the past several months, Hardcastle mandated that veteran judges speak with and mentor Halverson. She then stripped Halverson of her criminal docket. Finally, the chief locked Halverson out of her chambers and barred her from entering the courthouse.

Their legal skirmish, called Halverson vs. Hardcastle on the state Supreme Court docket, could redefine the level of authority chief judges have in Nevada, and ultimately, how courthouses are run.

According to Halverson - whom the Supreme Court let back into her courtroom while it weighs the merits of the case - the issue is simple: Hardcastle overstepped as chief judge and acted to punish Halverson.

"Summarily removing a judge's entire caseload because of some perceived error or misstep is PUNITIVE," attorneys Dominic Gentile and William Gamage wrote on May 14 on Halverson's behalf. "Ejecting a judge from the very courtroom where she must work to serve her duties as a District Court judge is PUNITIVE and amounts to a total USURPATION of Judge Halverson's elected office." (The emphasis is original.)

Nine days later, Hardcastle responded through her lawyers with the state's attorney general's office.

As chief judge, Hardcastle has every right, wrote Chief Solicitor General Daniel Wong, to appoint a special committee of judges, to reassign cases from one judicial department to another, and to assign cases and adopt rules and regulations "necessary for the orderly conduct of business."

What's more, Wong wrote, Hardcastle acted well within her authority by booting Halverson out of the downtown Regional Justice Center because of what was perceived as a security threat.

Halverson's attorneys say Hardcastle has acted out of bounds.

They claim that the Eighth District Court rules that define a chief judge's responsibilities do not imbue chiefs with "extra-judicial power over the actions of other District c ourt judges."

They argue further that only the Judicial Discipline Commission has the authority to censure, remove or otherwise discipline wayward or incapacitated judges.

In Hardcastle's response, her attorneys argue that state law and court rules specifically grant chief judges additional authority to make administrative decisions, to appoint special committees of judges, and to supervise court calendars and reassign cases when necessary.

Moreover, it is well within a chief judge's rights, they argue, to maintain security in their courthouses.

Though Halverson started serving as a district judge only in January, she and Hardcastle have a long and tangled history.

Halverson, a nine-year law clerk for several judges, was placed on paid administrative leave by Hardcastle in May 2004, just days after she announced that she would run against Hardcastle's husband, Gerald Hardcastle, for Family Court judge.

In that incident, Halverson was greeted by a bailiff when she arrived at work. The bailiff told her she was no longer allowed in Hardcastle's court offices.

Halverson lost her race against Gerald Hardcastle. Kathy Hardcastle had participated in her husband's campaign, something Hardcastle was eventually chastised for (after Halverson's complaint) by the Commission on Judicial Ethics and Election Practices.

The Clark County District Court in 1999 adopted the so-called "strong chief judge" model that Hardcastle has been using. Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Rose decided that some judges weren't carrying their fare share of the court's caseload, and that more power was needed for the chief judges in Clark and Washoe counties, to allow them directly to try to rectify the situation.

Three current district judges - none involved in the ongoing Halverson-Hardcastle saga - said they were glad to have a strong chief judge . Each spoke on the condition of anonymity because it's an ongoing legal matter.

If a judge isn't pulling his or her weight, or if reassignments are otherwise needed, one judge said , it's extremely helpful to have a chief able to do the administrative work and make the needed adjustments.

"Someone has to be able to make a decision," the judge said, "so that we can concentrate on doing our jobs."

Several of the cases in which Halverson has apparently had the most trouble have been criminal matters. When she was running for office, she said she would mostly avoid criminal cases for at least her first two years in office.

On her campaign Web site, Halverson said the judicial department she was running for would have an exclusively civil workload "with an occasional overflow criminal trial thrown into the mix.

"Having an expertise in civil law and in the way the court works based on my prior experience," she wrote, "means that I will be ready to work for you from the first day."

Yet Halverson was assigned by Hardcastle to work on a calendar with 50 percent civil and 50 percent criminal cases.

One of the judges who spoke with the Sun said the sooner the whole mess was over, the better.

"For all the rest of us doing our jobs and being good judges, it is difficult to see what's going on," the judge said, "because this reflects on all of us."

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