Posted Aug 01, 2007 11:26 am CDT
At first glance, the quo warranto matter of Halverson v. Hardcastle before the Nevada Supreme Court looks like a civics lesson on how much authority a state court’s chief judge has over colleagues.
But just a few flips into the hundreds of pages of pleadings, exhibits and affidavits—including formerly confidential documents circulated among judges, administrators and staff—there is a nasty battle involving a newly elected judge who figuratively turned the courthouse upside down, then literally got banned from it and locked out.
Las Vegas, despite the Strip and all its neon, is still a typical small city with some very atypical growing pains. And as in any small city, nothing entertains locals more than an old-fashioned, gossipy, lapel-grabbing, bridge-burning courthouse fight.
But such dust-ups usually happen down in front of the bench, not on it.
In this particular showdown, taking place in the Eighth Judicial District Court—the state’s newest and biggest courthouse—newly elected Judge Elizabeth Halverson is cast as a mean, morbidly obese incompetent abusing her power to settle scores accumulated there in her nine years as a law clerk.
Court documents—including the sworn affidavits of county administrators, judges and courthouse staff—contain the following claims:
• Insulting lawyers with sarcasm and taunts about not having contributed to her campaign.
• Applying her own brand of justice, such as talking to criminal juries during deliberations and outside the presence of the lawyers.
• Treating staffers as though they were her servants.
Within months of Halverson taking the bench in January, her former assistant sued her; a former bailiff filed a discrimination claim; her law clerk quit; and the courtroom clerk and court recorder were removed, by their request, from her staff.
Chief Judge Kathy Hardcastle is, in turn, cast by Halverson as an imperious, overreaching and abusive person, who over several years has leveled a series of personal and professional attacks.
The feud between them culminated May 15, when Chief Judge Hardcastle banned Halverson from the courthouse—a power grab beyond the chief’s legal authority, Halverson says. And it was for this that Halverson filed her unusual quo warranto petition, demanding that Hardcastle justify barring a duly elected public official from her own office and her own court. A few days later, the Nevada Supreme Court granted a temporary stay, and Halverson returned. Halverson v. Hardcastle, No. 49453.
But sometimes what happens in Las Vegas just won’t stay there, and along with Halverson’s lawsuit, this saga has reached the state capital of Carson City. No longer just juicy grist for newspaper columns and local television exposés, the Halverson matter is of serious note even in the Nevada state legislature as part of the backdrop for renewed debate about merit-based selection of judges.
Although they will neither confirm nor deny it, the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline is reportedly investigating the Halverson matter. The commission holds the power to remove the judge for the relentless series of embarrassments, but not everybody thinks that would be a good thing—at least not before the supreme court has a chance to rule.
“I wouldn’t want to see the judicial commission rush to judgment in response to the media circus,” says Jeffrey Stempel, who teaches professional responsibility at the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“There shouldn’t be a rush just to take the heat off the supreme court. I think the commission needs to use its power cautiously because it really is a substitution of an unelected group for an elective outcome,” Stempel says.
“That said, Halverson seems to have been rubbing the nose of the judicial establishment in all this.”
When Hardcastle took the bench in 1997, Halverson had been working for two years as a law clerk, mostly for the chief judge. Halverson was there for nine years by the time Hardcastle ascended to chief in 2004.
Just four days after being elected chief, she fired Halverson.
It was intended to be a slow-motion termination, with Halverson getting about three months’ notice. But several weeks later, Halverson announced she intended to run for judge in one of Clark County’s family courts, where she would be challenging an incumbent. The incumbent happened to be Hardcastle’s husband, Judge Gerald Hardcastle.
Halverson was fired on the spot.
She narrowly lost that race. But she didn’t go away. Halverson complained to the Standing Committee on Judicial Ethics and Election Practices, saying Kathy Hardcastle had improperly campaigned on behalf of her (now-ex) husband.
The committee determined that Kathy Hardcastle indeed violated judicial canons by handing out her husband’s campaign brochures and sitting at his campaign tables, and it admonished Gerald Hardcastle for failing to “encourage” his family to live up to the same standards expected of judges and candidates. Halverson v. Hardcastle, in re: Unfair Election Practice, Published Decision 04-2.
Last year, Halverson was elected to succeed Judge Michael Cherry, who had been elevated to the Nevada Supreme Court.
Halverson, who weighs 425 pounds, moves about the courthouse with an electric scooter and breathes from an oxygen tank through plastic tubes attached at her nostrils. Though her health became an issue in the campaign, she managed to win with slightly more than 50 percent of the vote. And though some expected fireworks when the 49-year-old Halverson took the bench in January, no one could have dreamed up the events that apparently followed.
Though Halverson denies or minimizes much of it, hundreds of pages of formal complaints, sworn affidavits and official inquiries chronicle a mind-numbing series of accusations from a broad spectrum of county employees.
For instance, Halverson’s bailiff, a black man, says he was ordered to rub her feet, give her back massages, put on her shoes, change her oxygen bottles and pick up papers, cookie crumbs and sunflower seed hulls strewn on the floor of her chambers. He eventually filed a claim for discrimination based on race, religion and sex.
The bailiff, Johnny Jordan, was to be waiting for her each day at the building entrance at 7:30 a.m., though she often arrived at 8:30 or later.
Halverson, the bailiff and other staffers alleged, would sometimes throw items on the floor and order Jordan to pick them up.
When Halverson’s mother visited in chambers, she asked her daughter, in the bailiff’s presence: “Is he your servant?”
A courtroom clerk alleged that Halverson had her swear in staffers so she could ask them pointed questions under oath about what they might be telling other judges about her. On one occasion, she said, Halverson had her husband sworn in so she could ask him, apparently under penalty of perjury, whether he would have their house clean in time for her mother’s visit.
When the first witness took the stand in Halverson’s first criminal trial, Halverson fell asleep. According to several staffers, she often slept in court and court employees developed ways to signal each other when it was time for someone to wake her.
Twice, Halverson was said to have spoken with criminal juries when none of the lawyers were present. And in at least one of those trials, her potentially unethical action forced prosecutors to offer a more generous plea agreement than the charges warranted, according to court documents and confirmed by Michael Sommermeyer, the courthouse public information officer.
In a meeting with several colleagues, Halverson admitted berating lawyers in open court for not having contributed to her election campaign.
Routinely, Halverson screamed at staffers, referring to them with such demeaning epithets as “the elf,” “the evil one,” “bitch” and “the Antichrist.”
Even her husband wasn’t immune to the treatment. According to court documents, several staffers complained that in their presence Halverson would often call him “bitch” and “fucker.”
Barely a month after Halverson took the bench, she was visited by two Nevada Supreme Court justices who expressed to her concerns about how she was treating her staff, according to Sommermeyer.
Halverson had clerked for one of the justices, Mark Gibbons, when he was chief judge in Las Vegas. The other was Justice Cherry, who had preceded Halverson on the bench.
“I hear the two justices walked away shaking their heads because Judge Halverson made it clear to them she’s smarter than they are,” says Sommermeyer. “They were chastised.”
Neither Gibbons nor Cherry will be sitting for Halverson’s supreme court case.
On April 6, Halverson met with a committee of three judges named by Hardcastle to work with her on various complaints about her behavior.
Halverson had quick answers to a laundry list of questions about her behavior, according to a formerly confidential memo from Kathy Lambermont, the court’s human resources manager, who was present.
Concerning the foot and back rubs, she said she had told the bailiff to stop being “too familiar.”
Concerning her bailiff being required to prepare her lunch for her in a microwave oven in her chambers restroom, which staffers say has foul odors, she said the bailiff worries about her and says she needs to eat.
Concerning her courtroom comments to lawyers about not donating to her campaign, she said she had not discriminated against any of them because no lawyers had contributed to her campaign.
Concerning staff complaints about Halverson’s treatment of her husband when he visits the court, she said she would have him stop coming by.
According to the memo, one judge at the meeting suggested she get professional help. Halverson agreed, saying she would like a business coach to help her and her staff communicate better.
One of those at the meeting was Judge Stewart Bell, a two-term district attorney in Las Vegas and former president of the Nevada State Bar. As everyone readied to depart, Bell reiterated the suggestion that she seek help—this time in more pointed fashion:
“If you can’t see it, you can’t fix it. Get some psychological help.”
It was the last time Halverson would meet with the panel of judges. Halverson was told to meet with them again on April 12. She sent back word that she was in trial all afternoon. The judges waited for her till 6 p.m., to no avail, and later determined that she had not been in trial. She stood them up again for a meeting re-scheduled for the next morning.
In early May, Halverson fired her assistant, Ileen Spoor. Spoor complained that some of her personal belongings had been left in the office. On May 9, at the direction of the acting chief judge, an entourage of armed bailiffs, the court administrator, an assistant court administrator for human resources and a videographer accompanied Spoor to retrieve her belongings.
When they knocked on the door to inform the judge about what they were doing, they were greeted by two unauthorized private bodyguards—apparently hired by Halverson—who informed them that the judge would not leave her office, and that she considered their presence an illegal search.
As the videographer rolled, Spoor looked for a Rolodex and several envelopes containing traffic tickets belonging to friends. Halverson called 911 to report that she was “barricaded” in to hold off what she believed was an illegal attempt under way by courthouse personnel to enter her chambers.
In a transcript of the 911 call, an exhibit in the case, the dispatcher pressed for details. He asked the age of the fired assistant who was in the group at Halverson’s chambers door that very moment.
“Oh, about, I don’t know; she looks like she’s about 80, but I think she’s 52 or 53,” Halverson replied.
The incident—especially the hiring of the bodyguards—seems to have been either the final straw for Hardcastle or, as Halverson would later put it, the pretext she needed to act against Halverson.
The next day, the chief judge had the locks changed on Halverson’s chambers, declared Halverson and her bodyguards a security risk, and told a county employee to inform her that she had been banned from the courthouse.
On May 15, Halverson filed her lawsuit against Hardcastle, an unusual petition for a writ of quo warranto that challenges the chief judge’s authority over Halverson. She alleges the judge’s actions were not only illegal, but also punitive.
The writ says a chief judge has only additional “administrative” duties in that position and asks “by what authority” Hardcastle could:
• Require Halverson to meet with a three-judge committee named by Hardcastle to review her judicial and extrajudicial actions. (Hardcastle had created the committee to look into complaints about Halverson, rather than do it herself, because her relationship with Halverson has been problematic.)
• Remove all criminal matters from Halverson’s docket, on recommendation by that committee.
• Bar Halverson from the courtroom that voters had put her in.
Halverson is represented by prominent Las Vegas attorney Dominic Gentile. He has a U.S. Supreme Court victory—with his name as petitioner—that struck down limits on lawyers speaking to the press about a pending case. Gentile v. State Bar of Nevada, 501 U.S. 1030 (1991).
Gentile did not avail himself of an opportunity to speak for this story.
It is widely believed that Halverson, perhaps one of the best legal minds in town, did much of the research and writing in the writ. She also did not respond to a request for an interview.
Those who have worked with Halverson say she’s very, very smart.
“Unfortunately, she doesn’t have good people skills when she’s being attacked,” says Don Chairez, a former Clark County district judge who originally hired Halverson as a law clerk in 1995. They were law school classmates at the University of Southern California.
“But she did the heavy lifting in that court. When judges had complex issues, they came to her to write their memos. And they got Harvard Law Review-quality work,” says Chairez.
After the April 6 meeting she had researched Hardcastle’s authority to appoint the three-judge committee that was reviewing her. She apparently concluded that the chief judge had no such power at all.
Halverson has said in pleadings that she is subject to discipline only by the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline. Halverson hired an employment lawyer immediately and from that point on refused to meet with the committee because, she reasoned, she was represented by counsel—though invitations continued.
“There are some interesting, first-impression constitutional issues here, both Nevada and federal,” says her lawyer in that matter, Robert Spretnak of Las Vegas. He does not represent her in the case at the supreme court but says he may have other fish to fry, probably in federal court.
“Are the judge’s chambers the judge’s or the county’s?” he says. “If they’re the judge’s, then when [court administrator] Chuck Short and others came in with armed bailiffs, is that an unwarranted search in violation of the Fourth Amendment?”
Halverson has also fought back. After the May 9 “barricade” incident, she apparently provided e-mails and other documents she found at her former assistant’s desk, alleging that Spoor had been part of a ticket-fixing scheme. Spoor denies any wrongdoing, and courthouse officials say it was perfectly acceptable.
Court public information officer Sommermeyer says that there is no wrongdoing involving traffic tickets, and that most see this as “Judge Halverson trying to distract attention from her own problems.”
Sommermeyer says a “courthouse culture” has developed over the years in which some staff and a number of lawyers bring large groups of tickets to the court. He says this is an efficient way to lessen a huge traffic docket. Most of the tickets are for speeding and typically are reduced to violations that add no or fewer points to driving records. Fines are collected.
Spoor, for her part, has sued Halverson for defamation stemming from the judge’s quotes. Spoor v. Halverson, No. A541794 (Dist. Ct. Clark County Nev.).
Some see Halverson’s physical appearance as part of the reason she has failed to become part of the courthouse culture. Prejudice feeds both the bad feelings against her, as well as her own defiance.
“A lot of this controversy has to do with discrimination against fat people,” Chairez says.
Halverson can be pointed when asked about her weight and health. Responding to a newspaper columnist who had ridiculed her health paraphernalia and appearance, Halverson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal: “The reason I’m supposedly spooky is I’m a morbidly obese woman in a scooter sucking oxygen in my nose. Well, so does Stephen Hawking. Shall we get rid of him?”
Still, it is difficult to square some of the circles in her life.
A San Francisco property owner recently moved for garnishment of Halverson’s pay from the state of Nevada, according to Shawn Miller, a shareholder at the Las Vegas law firm of Shea & Carlyon, which represents the landlord.
Halverson had kept a rent-controlled apartment for many years after relocating to Las Vegas in the mid-1990s. Halverson had litigated all the way to the California Supreme Court to keep from paying legal fees and interest to the former landlord.
She lost at all levels in California. Then she lost in her own courthouse in Las Vegas, where the landlord came to enforce the judgment in 2004. The total was more than $42,000 at the time, and interest still accrues. Faziola v. La Macchia, aka Halverson, No. A497569 (Dist. Ct. Clark County Nev.).
The Las Vegas news frenzy concerning Halverson has turned up a string of felony arrests of her 48-year-old husband, Edward Lee Halverson. According to court records, he served nearly four years in prison. The couple married in 1998, apparently while he was on probation and she was a law clerk.
Then there’s the abatement movement in recent months by the county, which is trying to get the Halversons to clean up their home and property in a neighborhood she describes as “poor” in an appeal of the county action.
Among other alleged infractions cited by the county, there was a large amount of trash in the backyard, overgrown weeds and shrubs, a near-collapsed shed, mosquito-ridden slime in the swimming pool, and the porch and two tents pitched on the driveway were choked with empty oxygen bottles, according to Deputy District Attorney Steven Sweikert.
Sweikert says the Halversons have made considerable progress in the cleanup, and a negotiated settlement granting them more time to complete it has gone to the county Board of Commissioners for approval.
There are only 8,690 lawyers in the state of Nevada, and half of them are in Las Vegas. When l’affaire Halverson took hold, the Las Vegas judiciary was still reeling from an investigative report last year by the Los Angeles Times that delved into questionable practices concerning campaign funding for judicial elections and favoritism for lawyers who make contributions.
Cocktail gatherings for lawyers to drink and schmooze with judges—a vestige of small-town, back-scratching culture—are still routine. And Stempel, the law professor teaching professional responsibility, says he’s very active in the bar, but he skips them.
“It drives me nuts,” he says. “I do think judges should be somewhat on pedestals and above the hurly-burly.”
The Times’ investigation helped renew a movement in the state legislature for merit selection of judges. It was boosted by the Halverson flap as legislation was marked up and adopted recently.
The modified Missouri Plan would have a judicial selection commission submit three names to the governor for open positions on the bench. The governor would choose one judge, who then would serve for two years before facing an uncontested retention election.
The plan also would include a judicial performance commission that would review the judge’s record before the retention election and issue a report either recommending retention or not.
The biennial legislature would have to approve the proposed constitutional amendment again in 2009 and, if it does, get voter approval in 2010. And although the legislation was already in the hopper before the Halverson matter broke, the controversial judge became—in the words of one legislator—a poster child for the measure.
But for many in Las Vegas and elsewhere in the state, Halverson v. Hardcastle has been nothing short of enduring fascination. In a letter to the editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, a high school teacher reported that current events suddenly have caught on with her students.
“My high school students have never read the newspaper with such genuine excitement before,” the teacher wrote. “We’re all anxiously awaiting the next episode in this sordid saga. … So please, let Judge Halverson stay on the bench, just a little bit longer.”