Las Vegas judge under investigation

Special to The Times

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco has launched an investigation of a federal judge who awarded more than $4.8 million in judgments and fees without apparently disclosing his personal, political and business ties to those who benefited, two sources close to the inquiry told The Times.

U.S. District Judge James C. Mahan of Las Vegas, a popular state judge who joined the federal bench in 2002 after his nomination by President Bush, was the subject of Times investigative reports in June.

Investigations of federal judges are confidential. However, two people independently familiar with the matter said that a law firm hired by the 9th Circuit has scheduled interviews with key figures in the Mahan case.

The law firm was hired by the 9th Circuit "to investigate and make a recommendation" regarding possible disciplinary action for Mahan, one of the sources said.

The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they might run afoul of the court's secrecy requirements for judicial inquiries. Ninth Circuit confidentiality rules apply to "any person in any proceeding" and provide that violators "could be held in contempt."

The federal investigation follows several reforms initiated at the state level after the series of Times articles exposing irregularities in the Las Vegas judiciary. The measures include the appointment last month of a 30-member statewide commission "to investigate and make recommendations" for reforming the state justice system.

On Mahan, the articles detailed how he awarded fees in a dozen state and federal cases to a former client and business associate who twice served as his judicial campaign treasurer and who was instrumental in getting him appointed to the bench.

Mahan also approved additional fees for his former law partner, who was providing free legal services for both the judge's wife and the judge's executive judicial assistant, and with whom the judge was still tied financially through property ownership and a profit sharing plan.

A search of court records found no indication that he disclosed his ties to those who were awarded the judgments and fees.

Mahan angrily denied any wrongdoing before publication of the articles, and has not responded to questions and repeated phone calls since.

The disclosures in June prompted U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. of Los Angeles, former chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, to publicly urge Chief Judge Mary M. Schroeder of the 9th Circuit, to investigate.

"I fully expect the chief judge to do something," Hatter said shortly after the articles appeared.

Bound by its strict rules of secrecy, the 9th Circuit, which oversees Nevada, California and seven other Western states, has kept silent on whether it is even considering an investigation.

But the hiring of an outside law firm by the 9th Circuit "suggests that a special committee has been appointed" by the chief judge to investigate Mahan, said Ronald D. Rotunda, a law professor at George Mason University who is an expert on legal ethics.

Special committees are appointed when the chief judge determines that an original complaint filed with the court clerk is credible and "raises an issue that should be investigated," according to rules of the 9th Circuit Judicial Council.

Special committees are then allowed to "arrange ... for the hiring of special staff to assist in the investigation," Judicial Council rules state. A federal judge said this "special staff" sometimes consists of an outside law firm.

Typically, a special committee passes its findings and recommendations to the council for further investigation, or, in the case of impeachment, referral to the Judicial Council of the United States.

Impeachment of federal judges, who are appointed for life, is rare, as is lesser disciplinary action such as censure. Only a few 9th Circuit judges are believed to have been disciplined in the last 15 years.

Mahan was one of eight former and current Nevada judges featured in the Times report in early June. The articles detailed how some state judges routinely ruled in favor of friends, former clients and business partners, and how they solicited campaign donations from lawyers appearing before them and then ruled favorably.

Reaction by the Nevada Supreme Court, which supervises the state judiciary, was immediate and is ongoing.

Last week, the state's highest court added two reform measures as rule changes to the Nevada Code of Judicial Conduct. The reforms were proposed in a petition filed last month by retiring Chief Justice Robert E. Rose and discussed in a public hearing Dec. 5.

One new rule requires judges to disclose their relationship to former law clerks appearing before them as attorneys for at least three years after the clerkship.

"Recent articles in the Los Angeles Times," Rose's petition stated, "roundly criticized Nevada judges for not disclosing that an attorney appearing before a judge was a former law clerk to the judge. This does appear to be a relationship that opposing counsel might reasonably consider relevant to the question of disqualification."

The Times' series showed how the state Supreme Court had to step in and order one judge to reduce the sweeping power he had granted a former law clerk he appointed to assist him.

Another judge, the series disclosed, consistently overturned drunken driving convictions for clients of his former law clerk, while consistently upholding convictions for clients of other lawyers.

The second reform allows the removal of senior judges from cases through the "peremptory challenge" process that applies to regular judges. Senior judges had been exempt from such removal.

Nevada's senior judges are typically retired but work part time as relief judges. As senior judges, they have the same power as elected state judges, but don't answer to voters and their terms are open-ended. Yet three of the most active senior judges, The Times revealed, had careers marked by scandal and controversy.

Rose's petition also proposed both a cap on leftover campaign funds and courtroom disclosure by judges when contributors of more than $10,000 appear before them. The high court referred those two proposals to the statewide commission it created in November.

With Rose as chairman, the commission held its first meeting in Las Vegas on Dec. 19. Composed largely of judges and prominent members of the Nevada legal community, the commission will pass its recommendations to the Nevada Supreme Court for presentation to the Legislature in February.

During its five-hour session, the commission targeted campaign fundraising by judges, selection of judges and the need for an appellate court as top priorities.

Of major concern was the practice of judges soliciting political donations from those who may appear before them.

"The last people you want asking for money are your judicial candidates," said commission member Frankie Sue Del Papa, a Reno attorney and former Nevada attorney general.

But another member, state Judge Lee A. Gates of Las Vegas, said judicial candidates have little choice: "If you want to win the game, you have to play the game."

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