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Las Vegas judge courts trouble with her actions

Times Staff Writer

If the allegations against Elizabeth Halverson are true, then the judge often handled her staff with the temperament of a toddler.

Her former bailiff said he was forced to heat and serve her lunch, check the temperature of her ice water, brush lint from her robe, help her put on her shoes, massage her neck and cover her with a blanket before her nap.

An assistant said Halverson, of the 8th Judicial District Court, made her answer questions -- under oath -- about courthouse gossip. She and others said the judge often hurled insults, some religious and ethnic.

Last spring, complaints about Halverson’s courtroom demeanor and other issues led her boss to strip her of criminal cases and ban her from the Clark County Regional Justice Center. In July, the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline suspended her with pay after taking testimony from her staff and others.

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Halverson, 50, is scheduled for an April hearing that could result in her removal from the bench.

Meanwhile, she openly tussled with county code enforcement officials over whether her mosquito-infested swimming pool and trash-littered yard constituted a public nuisance.

Oh, and she’s running for reelection.

In a state whose judicial system has been accused of cronyism and corruption, Halverson’s saga has provided more than a year’s worth of added gut punches.

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The Las Vegas Review- Journal recently named the judge the city’s “most colorful character,” saying “she has a real future in reality TV, either as a ‘Jerry Springer Show’ guest or a contestant on ‘Survivor: Regional Justice Center.’ ”

Halverson, who took the bench in January 2007, said in an interview that many of the accusations were either rookie mistakes blown out of proportion or just plain false. She’s being singled out, she said, because she is a grass-roots candidate and “not somebody in the juice machine.

“Here’s somebody who just got on the bench. . . . How could they be so horrible that they should be removed?” Halverson said. “I think this is the kind of thing that makes people look at the justice system and be concerned.”

Not ‘Wild West anymore’

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Two other Clark County judges are also under scrutiny from the Nevada judicial commission: Lee A. Gates, who is accused of making improper campaign donations; and N. Anthony Del Vecchio, who is accused of, among other things, forcing his ex-wife’s daughter to have sex with him to keep working as his assistant.

And before these cases, a 2006 Los Angeles Times investigation documented how eight current and former Nevada judges routinely ruled in favor of friends, former clients and business partners.

The accusations chip away at public respect for the courts, legal ethics experts said, but could also bolster efforts to reform Nevada’s judiciary.

Last week, a panel of mostly judges and attorneys backed a plan to overhaul how jurists are chosen, in hope of bolstering confidence in the state’s legal system.

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“It’s not the Wild West anymore,” said Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA School of Law, “and you can’t have Wild West justice.”

In particular, the Halverson case -- the first in recent memory in which a jurist contested suspension -- shows that the judicial commission is willing to rein in officials, said appointed special prosecutor Dorothy Nash Holmes.

The commission found that Halverson “is without sufficient legal abilities to conduct trials in criminal cases without threat of serious harm to the public or the administration of justice.”

“It’s been very sad and very difficult,” said Halverson, a USC law school graduate. “I’m sad every day for all the cases I’m missing, especially those I’d already started.”

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Ex-bailiff testifies

Halverson’s troubles began shortly after she began her judgeship. Media reports said her yard was littered with an old golf cart and campaign signs. Within months, she was making headlines for her courtroom behavior.

According to court papers, Halverson fell asleep during at least one criminal trial, which she attributed to health problems. Her staffers said that she often slept -- sometimes so deeply that even slamming a door didn’t wake her.

According to testimony, Halverson also improperly talked to jurors without attorneys present during two criminal trials and ate barbecue with them.

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Her former bailiff, Johnny Jordan, told commissioners that Halverson treated him like a houseboy and once said to his fiancee, “By day he’s mine, and by night, he’s yours.”

Halverson’s attorneys argued that he helped because of her health problems. The commission, which described her as “significantly overweight,” said she used a motorized vehicle and oxygen tank.

“He was never treated like a houseboy in any way, shape or form,” Halverson said. “It was he who wanted to do these things.”

The judge was accused of asking Jordan to spy on other staffers -- he reportedly refused -- and of hiring a technician to try to breach the Regional Justice Center’s computer system.

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She employed two private bodyguards without notifying court officials, which got her temporarily barred from the courthouse.

Halverson also referred to her husband as “Evil Ed,” her former bailiff testified, and told Jordan to “pull out your gun and shoot him.”

“I’ll dispose of the body,” Jordan quoted the judge as saying.

Halverson’s newer staffers told commissioners she acted respectfully and professionally. But commissioners said that didn’t excuse her treating Jordan and others in a “truly bizarre and inappropriate manner.”

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Two people are challenging the suspended judge in the August election. Halverson said she entered the race because community members encouraged her to hold onto her judgeship.

“Do I think the public will see the truth about me?” she said. “Yes, I do.”

--

ashley.powers@latimes.com

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