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October 22, 2014

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DAILY MEMO: COURTS:

For judges who err, justice far from swift

Count Raul Saavedra among the courthouse regulars who say Las Vegas Municipal Judge George Assad got off easy in connection with the unlawful detention of a Las Vegas woman in the judge’s courtroom six years ago.

Saavedra was the Municipal Court marshal who took Anne Chrzanowski into custody that day under what he insists were orders from the judge. Chrzanowski was basically held hostage for a couple of hours until her boyfriend showed up to take care of some unpaid traffic tickets.

The light sanctions levied against Assad years later — a written apology to Chrzanowski (who had since moved out of town) and enrollment in an ethics course — have focused attention once more on the state’s secretive and often slow-moving disciplinary process for judges.

The Nevada Judicial Discipline Commission is considered part of the judicial branch of state government, but the Nevada Supreme Court does not have any authority to oversee its daily operations. The governor, the Supreme Court and the Nevada State Bar appoint the commission’s seven part-time board members, who in turn appoint their own executive director.

When the Legislature hands out money to state agencies every two years, the commission usually is near the bottom of the list. With its small $600,000 budget, it is not unusual for the panel to run out of money to hire investigators or gather its members for a hearing on a disciplinary action.

All of this leads to the public perception that the commission has failed to consistently protect the integrity of the judiciary in a timely manner.

“The commission moves in slow and mysterious ways, and you wonder why,” one veteran court official says. “These are not complicated cases.”

Take the case of Sylvia Beller, a Family Court hearing master.

In a lapse of judgment in 2004, Beller ordered her deputy marshal to remove a belt that was holding up a teenager’s baggy pants as the marshal escorted him out of the courtroom. The pants naturally slipped down past the teenager’s knees to the embarrassment of not only the teenager, but spectators in the gallery. The incident was captured on courtroom videotape. Yet it took the Judicial Discipline Commission two years to issue a public reprimand to Beller.

The lack of timeliness in punishing Assad is just as egregious.

Assad’s misconduct against Chrzanowski occurred in 2003, but the commission didn’t put itself in a position to issue a public reprimand until 2007. Because the commission concluded that this was an isolated incident and was out of character for Assad, the Supreme Court on appeal later lightened the punishment. Assad then managed to string out the enforcement of the punishment until July by fighting the Supreme Court’s decision.

But even in his letter of apology, Assad wouldn’t accept total responsibility. He blamed what happened on a “misunderstanding” with the city marshal.

Saavedra, who’s been on the job for 23 years, insists that there was no misunderstanding. He says Assad made it perfectly clear to him that he was to detain Chrzanowski. The judge’s conduct that day also wasn’t as isolated as Assad contended, Saavedra adds. In the same court session, Assad had him detain two other people in similar fashion, he says.

Saavedra blames Assad for dragging out the disciplinary proceedings.

“Had he just acknowledged that he ordered her to be detained, this would have been resolved much faster,” Saavedra says. “I was just doing what I was told to do.”

David Sarnowski, the Judicial Discipline Commission’s executive director, says investigators looked into the allegations that Assad had ordered others held in custody, but they couldn’t come up with any witnesses to substantiate the allegations.

The time put into that effort was part of the reason the case took so long to play out, Sarnowski says. A federal lawsuit Chrzanowski filed against Assad, which ultimately was dismissed, also complicated the commission’s investigation.

Still, Sarnowski acknowledges that overall the commission needs to complete its work faster.

It has no choice.

The Legislature this year passed a measure that will force the panel starting in January to speed up the disciplinary process.

Among other things, Assembly Bill 496 requires the commission to either dismiss a complaint or file charges within 18 months after receiving it. The commission also now will have to hold a hearing on formal charges within 60 days after a judge responds in writing to the charges.

And beginning in January, anyone filing a complaint against a judge will have to file it within three years of the alleged misconduct, which should spare the commission the burden of having to investigate stale accusations.

A formula may be in place then to steer the Judicial Discipline Commission on a more judicious course.

Ironically, however, only time will tell whether it’s the right formula.

Jeff German is the Sun’s senior investigative reporter.

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