Friday, Oct. 16, 1998 | 11:26 a.m.
A lightning rod for criticism from lawyers and litigants at Family Court, Judge Fran Fine already had been disciplined once for unethical conduct. She overcame that to lead her Primary Election race to retain the post she said she cherishes.
But she couldn't overcome the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline, which voted Thursday to remove her from the job she has held since the Family Court was created nearly six years ago.
The 5-1 vote amounts to a professional death penalty since Nevada law prohibits judges kicked off the bench from ever again wearing the black robe or wielding a gavel.
Still Fine's name will appear on the November ballot just above challenger Robert Lueck, who quietly watched Thursday's proceedings. Ballots already have been printed and, in many cases, distributed. Early voting begins Saturday.
Fine may, in fact, be a legal candidate because of the expected appeal of the decision to the Nevada Supreme Court and the likelihood the high court would grant a stay pending that ultimate resolution.
Fine also may be able to return to her job on the Family Court bench during that time -- a move that could result in more public protests, like the one outside the Sawyer Building before Thursday's hearing.
Those protestors and the tension they brought filled much of the commission's meeting room. Fine's supporters were relegated to a small section that provided a protective barrier near the table where the judge and attorney William Terry were seated.
When the decision by the grim-faced committee members was announced, there were cheers of agreement from many and gasps of disbelief from others. Fine left almost immediately through a back door.
Fine had been declared by the commission to have violated ethical rules by meeting with psychologists and other professionals in some cases without attorneys for either side being present. She also was chastised for appointing her cousin to serve as a psychologist in a case without revealing the relationship. Fine then held the parties in contempt of court when the cousin wasn't paid.
Fine's first disciplinary conviction came a couple of years ago when she improperly had contact with a fellow judge in an apparent attempt to influence the outcome of a case involving a friend. For that, she was publicly reprimanded and fined $5,000.
In the current case, the commission took the unusual step of holding a public hearing to help it determine Fine's punishment and it was clear commission members were in a quandry about what to do.
Commission member Washoe County District Judge Brent Adams conceded that Fine was sincere and dedicated to her job but he wanted her to convince him that she understood the judicial process and its limitations -- particularly since both disciplinary actions involved so-called ex parte communications.
"You made colossal decisions without witnesses ever taking the witness stand or lawyers ever making arguments," Adams said. "That's fine if you are Judge Judy on TV, but it is illegal for judges in the state of Nevada or any other state."
Fine apologized and explained she was trying to expedite cases by gathering information on her own. She assured the commission she has taken steps to prevent that from ever happening again.
Attorney Valerie Cooke said her perception is that Fine has constantly disregarded the process and the "cost to families and the emotional cost to families is staggering."
Fine conceded she made some mistakes but said the Family Court job "didn't come with a manual" and her years of on-the-job-training resulted in some problems that she believes she now has corrected.
She asked the commission to give her an opportunity to show them by leaving her on the bench.
But she didn't manage to convince them. After an hour of deliberations, Douglas County District Judge Michael Griffin announced to Fine that the vote was to remove her from the bench.
Commission executive director Leonard Gang (no relation to the reporter) said that Griffin was the one who voted to keep Fine on the job.
Fine's fight should now shift to the Nevada Supreme Court and, perhaps, to federal court.
There has been talk in the legal community that an appeal could challenge the authority of the Commission on Judicial Discipline to remove a judge from office since it was created by the legislative branch of government to control part of the judicial branch -- perhaps violating the separation of powers doctrine.
There also is a question whether the Nevada Constitution would permit any elected official to be removed by any process other than a recall election by the voters.
Gang said any appeal would have to be filed within 15 days and undoubtedly would be accompanied by a request to put the commission's decision on hold pending the outcome of the appeal.
If Fine wins the election, the high court would have to address the appeal issues, but if she loses, the issues would be dead unless Fine chose to continue the fight with an eye toward again seeking judicial election in the future.
Nothing in Thursday's action affects Fine's law license.
Lueck said after the hearing that Fine's removal "was something that was necessary in view of her conduct during the last five years."
The winners, he said, are the public, the legal system and the judiciary.
"All judges get criticism but nobody has ever generated anger in so many people the way Judge Fine has," Lueck said.
One of those is Robert Levey, who said Fine sent him to jail for 25 days without a hearing.
"I think it (the ruling) is excellent. It's justice. This woman is not mentally fit for the job," he said.
Mark Martin, who was involved in a heated child custody dispute in 1992, recalled Fine as a judge who "was never prepared. She sat up there and put her lipstick on. She told me to shut up when I wanted to talk.
"I thought that money and power in Las Vegas would have another outcome, but these people (the Judicial Discipline Commission) did right."