Bench Brawl

In Nevada, it's sometimes hard to tell the judge from the accused.
by | August 2007

All rise for the case of District Court Judge Elizabeth Halverson-- whose brief tenure on the bench is providing fodder for an ongoing controversy about Nevada's judicial selection process--and probably should renew a similar debate in other parts of the country.

To say Halverson has been in the news quite a bit during her first months as a Clark County judge would be something of an understatement. In May, the county's chief judicial officer, Kathy A. Hardcastle, blocked Halverson from hearing criminal cases until a panel of three other judges could assess her competency. Hardcastle said there had been complaints about the new judge's courtroom practices and her "seemingly volatile, angry, paranoid and bizarre behavior toward staff." The chief judge briefly barred Halverson from the courthouse altogether after she came to court in May with two personal bodyguards. The state supreme court allowed Halverson to return to work--as long as she agreed to follow courthouse security protocols.

Why did Halverson think she needed a private security detail? Because her bailiff had been reassigned. He had filed a complaint with the county diversity office about demeaning treatment by the judge, saying she had acted like he was her "house boy" and demanded that he give her foot massages and back rubs.

Nevada papers and TV news have relished all the details and the other matters reporters have dredged up about Halverson, including her husband's criminal record and unpaid legal fees she owes her former landlords in California. None of this seems to have been an issue before Halverson's election last November.

Halverson has gone to the state supreme court to challenge Chief Judge Hardcastle's decision to reassign all of her criminal cases--a move Halverson says blocks her from doing the work she was elected to do. Halverson's lawyers argue that only the state Commission on Judicial Discipline has the authority to judge her competency.

All this happened as Nevada lawmakers were debating a plan to overhaul the state's judicial selection process. Under a proposed constitutional amendment, the governor would appoint district judges and supreme court justices based on recommendations from a new judicial selection commission. Voters would then be asked to retain or reject those choices--a variation on the so-called "Missouri plan" for merit selection of judges. The legislature approved the new system, but the debate isn't over. For the plan to be enacted, Nevada lawmakers need to approve the amendment again in their 2009 session and then put the matter to a statewide vote the following year.

The upheaval in Clark County hasn't played much of a role in the constitutional debate. But the state's current selection system has had at least something to do with the strained relationship between Halverson and her chief judge. In 2004, Hardcastle put Halverson on paid administrative leave after nine years of work as a law clerk, just as Halverson was preparing to run for a family court judgeship. Halverson's opponent in that race: Hardcastle's husband.

Judicial scandals of some variety--although generally not as bizarre as this one--turn up somewhere in the country all the time. They nearly always create at least a brief surge of support for replacing elections with a merit system. But change is hard to implement--87 percent of the judges in the country still owe their jobs to the political process. If this year's antics in Nevada don't make the case for reform, it's hard to imagine anything will.