Las Vegas Sun

May 19, 2022

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Changes to judicial discipline process studied

After a tumultuous year in which the alleged misdeeds of two judges attracted national attention, the Nevada Supreme Court is entertaining suggestions for changes to the rules, regulations and practices of the Judicial Discipline Commission.

A special committee set up to review all aspects of the state’s court system, known as the Article 6 Commission, held a public hearing Jan. 15 on the system for filing complaints against judges and heard comments on changes recommended by a subcommittee established to study reforms.

No action was taken on the report or other Article 6 Commission business because not enough members showed up to reach a quorum.

Among the most pressing recommendations from the subcommittee were calls for increased transparency in the process and quicker disposition of cases handled by the commission.

To shorten the length of time between filing of complaints and resolution, the panel recommends a statute of limitations on complaints and time limits on the processing of cases.

The panel recommends cases be resolved within 18 months and deadlines be established, such as 30 days for the filing of a formal statement of charges, 20 days for a judge to answer a complaint, 60 days for a hearing to be held and 60 days for a decision.

“The process is too long,” Robert Holgate, a member of the public, said during the public-comment period. “People are out there suffering ... Not hearing anything for a year? It’s not clear to me how the commission can think that’s acceptable.”

The statute of limitations was objected to by some because it would mean victims of judicial misconduct would likely have to file complaints while their cases before the judge are still pending, potentially influencing the judge.

Some judges have a reputation for retaliating against those who file complaints with the Judical Discipline Commission, said a woman who identified herself only as Pamela. Adding a statute of limitations would further limit the number of people willing to report misbehavior of judges.

These rules would also do nothing to prevent stalling tactics of judges under investigation, such as the ignoring of subpoenas and numerous appeals and lawsuits filed by former District Judge Elizabeth Halverson during her disciplinary proceedings.

The report also recommends:

• Adding public admonishment and public reprimand to the list of allowed forms of discipline (joining fines, suspension and removal).

• Providing for notice and a public hearing before a judge can be suspended.

• Amending the Nevada Constitution to separate the Judicial Discipline Commission’s investigative and adjudicative functions.

The report also sought to restore the public’s trust in the judicial discipline process by making it more open. It recommended:

• Allowing those who file complaints against judges to discuss those matters publicly.

• Allowing the Judicial Discipline Commission to disclose information about some cases in certain circumstances — such as when details become public through other sources.

• Requiring the commission to prepare annual reports detailing the disposition of cases.

• Requiring the commission to tell those who filed complaints how the cases were resolved.

Members of the public pleaded with the committee to make the process more accessible and to implement changes to make the process more fair. Most said the current system is biased in favor of judges.

“If we don’t do our job properly, we get fired,” manicurist Marcia Kelley said during the public hearing. “In this system, (former Family Court Judge Nicholas Del Vecchio) was left to do harm to so many people.”

The public who spoke supported a suggestion dispensation of complaints be published annually, but pushed for further reform, such as allowing complainants to find out the

status of their case. They also suggested making all disciplinary measures public information.

The subcommittee’s report suggests allowing “private” or secret reprimands for minor one-time infractions committed by judges, something some in the audience thought was a bad idea.

“It’s hard to have transparency with a veneer of opaqueness,” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Allen Lichtenstein said of the practice of issuing private reprimands.

The 155-page report is available for viewing on the Supreme Court’s Web site at www.nvsupremecourt.us, under the section describing the Article 6 Commission.

The recommendations, if adopted by the Article 6 Commission, will be sent to the Nevada Legislature for necessary changes in statutes, and to the Judicial Discipline Commission, which establishes its own operating rules.

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