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The Intersection

We’ll (have to) be the judge of this Was a judge stripped of her cases because of a personal vendetta?

Damon Hodge

Nobody likes to be called out for poor job performance—not presidents and/or governors with sagging approval ratings, not star athletes with million-dollar contracts and penny-ante stats and certainly, most certainly, not husbands. Getting put on blast is one thing. Quite another if said dressing-down occurs in front of your peers. And if your character’s assaulted in front of people you sit in judgment of—and a reporter happens to be around to chronicle this procedural pimp-slap for posterity—man, that’s gotta hurt.

Welcome to District Court Judge Elizabeth Halverson’s world. A three-judge panel, led by Chief District Court Judge Kathy Hardcastle, recently stripped the rookie judge (she took the bench in January) of all her criminal cases. The panel claims Halverson, a law clerk for nine years and a former practicing attorney, lacks experience and familiarity with procedural rules. Her cases were assigned to Judge David Barker. She has no recourse since Eighth Judicial District Court rules and state statutes give chief judges the discretionary power to reassign cases from one judge to another.

“I asked the judges to work with her, to mentor with her and to identify the issues and look at various issues that have been raised with the employees and staff as well as the handling of the caseload,” Hardcastle told the Review-Journal. The panel was worried because “some of the procedural mistakes can be more critical in criminal cases and because you are looking at someone’s civil liberties and you’re also looking at public safety issues.”

Halverson’s retort in the R-J: Kiss my grits. I’m qualified and that’s that.

Her verbatim responses:

• “Provide some authority, and then we’ll talk about it, but in the meantime, I shall not be moved.”

• “They can have any whim they want. I’m still setting trials.”

• “I have it totally under control. Do I look like I’m upset? Not at all.”

More interesting than the reassignment—experts say they happen in courts throughout the country and aren’t always punitive—are the dynamics behind it, the testy relationship between judges Hardcastle and Halverson.

Hardcastle fired Halverson from her clerk’s post in 2004. Then Halverson ran for a judgeship against Hardcastle’s then-husband (she lost). Months after winning her current seat, Halverson gets stripped of her criminal cases. Which begs an obvious question: Was this payback?

The Hardcastle-Halverson spat (if you can call it that) raises even more visceral and important concerns: At some point, Halverson will probably preside over criminal cases again. Sure, you may not want a rookie judge presiding over your case, but he or she has to get experience somehow.

From a right-to-a-speedy-trial perspective, the reassignment seems somewhat counterproductive. Lawyers will have to build rapport with the new judge, which takes time, to say nothing of the stress reassigned cases can put on already overworked judges. Our judges are swamped as it is. The Nevada Judiciary’s annual report notes 83,271 cases were filed at the Eighth Judicial District Court last year, translating to 2,523 cases filed per judge. Can we really afford to take one out of the pipeline?

So many questions. We tried getting both judges on the line for answers, but neither returned multiple calls from the Weekly before press time. So we deferred to UCLA law professor Stephen Yeazell for some clarification.

Are judicial reassignments common in other jurisdictions?

It is common for judges in many states to have a couple of different initial assignments and to get reassigned. What is unusual is for a chief judge to announce as part of the reassignment that another has to demonstrate some sort of aptitude.

Are most new judges initially assigned to the criminal courts?

In some jurisdictions, that’s fairly common.

One law journal said reassignments have negative effects on the relationships between appellate and district courts, the “morale” of the district courts and the ability of the district courts to conduct business. True?

It depends on the circumstance and the specifics of the reassignment. This one sounds disciplinary, and it sounds quite personal. It’s very unusual for the chief judge to give public statements about reassigning a judge and for the reassigned judge to give a public statement firing back.

And Yeazell had a big question of his own: If there was a concern about this judge’s experience, why was she assigned criminal cases in the first place?

The unceremonial mallet

Why should justice be so grave? For the judge who’s lost her grip, plenty of places sell gavels in the shape of a potato, or a peanut, or an apple. At www.gavelstore.com, a musical Your Honor can get a gavel shaped like a grand piano for $250. The apple gavel, made of redwood and polished off with a little green leaf, goes for only $16.60. A crystal gavel (wouldn’t that break?) is $205. Indeed, Richard Nixon splintered the Senate’s ivory gavel in 1954 during an emotional debate on nuclear energy. –Stacy J. Willis

Tunneling out of the crime business

The grass outside of the old Clark County Courthouse is dying, turning a thirsty shade of beige, as the weather heats up for the second summer since the courthouse stopped doing business in 2005.

That’s about the only action happening at the courthouse, which was shuttered when the Clark County Regional Justice Center began doing business in September of 2005. Occasionally, a car will pull up and its passenger will run expectantly up to the door, only to return after reading the rudimentary sign made of construction paper and markers, announcing the closure of the building and instructing visitors to the 200 Lewis Avenue location.

It’s a prime piece of property, particularly considering the reawakening of Downtown. It’s even more significant when you consider what’s underneath the courthouse: A tunnel that connects it to the Clark County Detention Center a few blocks away that was used to transport prisoners when court was in session. Aside from storm drains and lore about casino tunnels, there aren’t many underground passageways in the hard caliche that lies under Las Vegas.

But the building is not for sale, and there are no plans for future use, county officials say. One day, says county spokesman Erik Pappa, if could be considered for a future Metro administrative location. But for now? Lawn growth—or lack of it—will be the only development on the site. –Kate Silver

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