The trials of Elizabeth Halverson
Is a disciplinary hearing for the embattled judge about conduct or comformity?
Thu, Aug 14, 2008 (midnight)
Photo: Jacob Kepler
It’s early last Friday morning, and a hard-driven white Buick sedan comes bumping along, lights on, toward the Las Vegas Convention Center, a red three-wheeled scooter attached to the back courtesy of a contraption her husband Ed, a union welder, fixed. They pull up to the front lot where five TV-news vans are parked, but the guard tells them they can’t come in this way, and redirects them, which seems to irritate Judge Elizabeth Halverson because she is, after all, a judge. But Ed, dutiful, able-bodied, puts the car in reverse and pulls around to the curb to drop off his wife of 11 years. He gets out, takes the scooter off the back, sits on it, turns the motor on and drives it up to the passenger door, where Elizabeth has put one foot out. Ed stands and takes her hand, and pulls, and her agonizing moan can be heard 50 yards away as she fights with her body, hundreds of pounds draped in a black printed dress, hoisting herself momentarily onto her two pudgy feet wrapped in matching black flats, up, up, over and then down onto the scooter’s black seat, where she plans to be the rest of this day.
- From the Archives
- This page theme: The bench (5/17/07)
- We’ll (have to) be the judge of this Was a judge stripped of her cases because of a personal vendetta? (5/14/07)
- Beyond the Weekly
- Halverson loses bid to stay on bench (Las Vegas Sun, 8/12/08)
- CNN video: Halverson witness testifies
- Bizarre allegations come to light (Las Vegas Sun, 8/16/08)
- Halverson battles 2 for re-election (Las Vegas Sun, 8/08/08)
- Jon Ralston envisions the sad and wacky possibilities of holding the next O.J. trial in Judge Halverson’s courtroom (Las Vegas Sun, 9/23/07)
- Judges step up feud, courthouse cringes (Las Vegas Sun, 5/29/07)
And this day will turn out to be a hard one. Judge Halverson, 50, is back for this fifth day of a judicial disciplinary hearing meant to determine whether she is fit to keep her judgeship, from which she was suspended more than a year ago after accusations from court insiders that she fell asleep on the bench, that she made her bailiff rub her feet, that she spoke to the jury against court rules. While Ed, in jeans and worn polo shirt, with a scruffy head of blond hair and a key ring hanging from his belt, goes to park the car and bring in a flatbed cart full of legal documents, Halverson adjusts to her nose the oxygen tubes from the tank on her bumper and scoots on through the convention center doors, into the elevator, in which she must face the back for the ride up to the second floor and reverse her way out, scooter beeping a warning. Today will be the continuation of her testimony, and her attorney, an expert in judicial disciplinary matters from Detroit hired about three weeks ago after several other attorneys left her side, will question her. It should be the easy part. But we are learning not to predict how things will turn out in this drawn-out battle. The whole matter was initially scheduled to wrap up today, but things in Elizabeth Halverson’s life have a way of not stopping when they are supposed to, and this hearing, which has been a year in coming, will now take at least another week, partly because Halverson’s team went to federal court two days ago alleging that her right to due process had been violated when the judicial discipline commission put a weeklong time limit on her disciplinary hearing. The judge agreed on that count. Some matters require a little more time to get to the heart of.
When she scoots into the hearing room alone, the presiding officer of the seven-member panel, Judge Richard Wagner, has already been there an hour chatting with the special prosecutor, a pantsuited, middle-aged woman who has spent the last year trying to get Halverson off the bench. A row of TV cameras is lined up and waiting, cameramen in cargo shorts and local TV reporters in sharp fashion. Another table is occupied by convention center audio-visual staff and national media—TruTV and CNN; CNN will broadcast this hearing live on CNN.com every day, and a Spanish station will broadcast it with the headline “Jurista Gigante”—the giant judge. A security guard has combed the place with a bomb-sniffing German shepherd, to whom he speaks a foreign language, and the court reporter is sitting, ready, to the side of the panel of jurists, who are elevated behind a long, skirted table, looking vaguely like a Last Supper scene. They are six men and one woman, dark-suited, all hairs in place, quiet, patient, stoic, and during this week almost none of them save Wagner, the white-haired, even-keeled presiding officer, ever speak. There is a sense that they want this farce over as quickly and quietly as possible, that they wish they weren’t a part of it, a sense of embarrassment that it has come to this at all. Something in their staid world is upset.
Halverson takes her place, parked up front. She has bright orange-red short hair and fresh skin, and the look on her face now seems a touch sad, lonely, tired. Her body hangs over both sides of the scooter seat, her knees angled wide to keep balance. At various times during this hearing, she has worn a bold, kelly green skirt and jacket; a gray, pin-striped suit with a pink silk flower sewn to the breast; and a nice brown suit, all tailor-made for her with care. Indeed, former court employee (and Halverson’s onetime friend) Ilene Spoor, who is key in indicting her, will testify that Halverson asked for her help in selecting outfits for political events. The judge keeps her small, fashionable purse on the handle of her scooter. Her plump arms are demarcated from her hands by a tight gold wristwatch on the left and a tighter-still gold bracelet on the right, both of which leave green marks on her fair skin. On Wednesday, when she drove into the small federal courtroom, a pre-teen boy gasped aloud when he saw her.
The events leading up to this tense affair are mixed tales of bickering and politics in the Eighth Judicial District, of behavior considered bizarre and inappropriate, of prejudice and human nature and awkwardness and meanness and pity but mostly fear, and they differ depending on the source. Halverson received her juris doctorate from USC in 1980, practiced transactional law—she tried no cases—in California, and was called to Vegas to clerk for Judge Don Chairez in 1995. To this day, Chairez, now a candidate for the Nevada Supreme Court, considers her a brilliant legal mind. Her problems getting along with others started on Day 1, he says, when, already obese but still able to walk, she asked for a handicapped parking spot, which perturbed other staffers, for whom parking is an issue. By 2004, Chairez had moved on from the Eighth District, and Halverson hung on as a staff clerk, or pseudo-staff attorney preparing briefs for a variety of judges, and the new Chief Judge, Kathy Hardcastle, wanted her out. “You need to know what you’re going to do with your life,” Halverson testifies that Hardcastle told her. Halverson had already received new business cards with the title Staff Attorney, but instead she was fired. Two days later, she entered the race for Family Court Judge against Hardcastle’s husband, Gerald Hardcastle.
“She came from a working-class Italian family in San Francisco,” Chairez says as he waits in the convention center to testify in her disciplinary hearing. “Her dad died when she was very young, and she developed that fighting attitude. There are different styles of people. She’s like Mike Tyson—she will swing back.”
She lost the race, but, she is quick to point out in conversation, not by much. She ran again in 2006 for District Court Department 23, won, was sworn in in December and heard her first trial in January 2007—having never tried a case, but taking work home at night in an attempt to be not only competent, but also excellent, noteworthy, respected—someone who rose to greatness with odds against her. Her husband, who describes himself as a slob who caused her problems in 2007 by not taking care of their yard, an overgrown mess that drew complaints from the county and subsequent additional negative headlines, boasts that she is extremely intelligent. He says sure, she’s demanding, but that she has a great, sarcastic sense of humor and just doesn’t fit in with the judicial social cliques. “The thing that scares the establishment about Elizabeth Halverson is that she doesn’t care who you are or what your name is,” he says. When she took office, she asked the court for a special chair to accommodate her weight, more than 400 pounds, and she could not enter the court through the judge’s private entrance because she would not fit, and so she continued to use the public entrance. By April, complaints from her staff that she demeaned them, that her newfound power was being wildly abused, that she asked her bailiff to rub her back and feet and make her lunch, that she fell asleep during her trials, talked to jurors ex parte, cussed at her employees and used religious slurs, and was generally difficult to work with, prompted the court to intervene. Three judges, Family Court Judge Art Ritchie and District Judges Stewart Bell and Sally Loehrer, were asked to offer guidance to the new jurist, but their meeting with her was unfruitful, according to both sides. The tension escalated. Her reputation as stubborn, mean and even, perhaps, unstable grew. By May, the embattled judge, the embattled fat judge, the embattled, fat, power-mad judge, was all over the news. She was suspended from the bench with pay in July 2007, and the disciplinary hearing on 14 counts of misconduct started last Monday.
What’s wrong with Elizabeth Halverson? She’s morbidly obese. She’s morbidly obese and not particularly apologetic nor courteously withdrawn because of it. And she rarely offers up a reason why she’s so big. The commission asked that she get both a physical and a psychiatric exam prior to this hearing, but she refused. At various times, a variety of ailments have been tossed around by her attorney and the prosecutor and pundits as possible causes for her obesity, from Crohn’s disease to something post-cancer-related to diabetes to a thyroid problem to the effects of a hysterectomy to some combination of all of the above. “People think she should be getting rebates from the A&P [grocery store],” quips her attorney Michael Schwartz, “but it’s a physiological condition.”
So why didn’t Halverson go ahead with the medical exams and couch the allegations against her as outgrowths of workplace prejudice, unlawful under the Americans with Disabilities Act? “They wanted a psychiatric exam, and that is just not appropriate,” Schwartz says. “The real issue is, did she engage in conduct she knew to be wrong?”
And while that alleged conduct includes harassing her staff and breaking court rules, making inappropriate jokes and chastising her husband in front of colleagues, violating the venerable canons of judgeship, it also includes the unstated offense of being enormous, and different, of literally and metaphorically not fitting in, and of not having a good enough excuse for it. Schwartz and Halverson initially presented the idea that people can tell she is disabled by looking at her, and that that should be enough to entitle her to reasonable accommodations under the ADA, such as, for example, the bailiff helping her put on her judicial robe or meeting her at the elevator with her things or even perhaps bringing her lunch. “I can’t breathe right, and I can’t walk right,” she testified. “I have a right to ask for help.” But the commission ruled that framing her conduct in the context of the ADA was inadmissible because Halverson didn’t cooperate with the examinations. She retorted: “It’s none of anybody’s business what caused all of my underlying issues.”
Schwartz—himself no wallflower, wearing wingtip shoes every day, not shying from the media—tells TruTV during a hearing break that he took her case when she called him a couple of weeks ago because he just thought she deserved a defense. Her case splits people up like that, the ones who relate to her otherness, the ones who are bothered by it. It paints the Judicial Disciplinary Commission into a tight corner, because how a legal system deals with The Others is infinitely important—but rarely is The Other one of them. The panel, made of appointees—judges, attorneys, businessmen—does not often hold public hearings, maybe once in the last two years. And it’s clear that this week’s events, broadcast around the world, are not good PR for the Eighth Judicial District, as pundits ask a range of questions not only about the judge, but also about the goings-on behind the scenes in Las Vegas’ courts. At various times during the hearing, the world hears court personnel testify that they helped grease friends’ traffic tickets, and views evidentiary videos of their looking like Keystone Kops as they try to gather evidence from Halverson’s office.
But mostly, judicial authorities seem embarrassed about the judge herself, because it’s difficult to separate Halverson’s personality from her persona, her professionalism from her appearance, her ability to conduct court from her ability conduct her personal life. The panel can be seen as persecuting her, or as saving the reputation of the court, or of simultaneously jeopardizing both. Elsewhere in the news, murders, economic downturn, the future of the nation, the health of the planet. And here, in the Las Vegas Convention Center, judicial officials are sizing up a fat lady. It’s a carnival and a tragedy. No one has flat-out asked, do you sit at home and eat Twinkies? But at the heart of this matter is a judgment about personal conduct and where the line is between the professional and the private, and how normal you have to be to get along in the world. What’s not being scrutinized, while every other thing about the banal life of court personnel is examined under a microscope—does the court buy the Rolodex, or is it private property?—is whether she’s taken any steps to change herself. If she does eat too much, does that make her guilty in the court of public opinion? But if she takes good care of herself, is repentant and is working to change, maybe she’s got a chance of scooting away from all of this less scathed?
Troublingly for most, she’s not repentant. And she’s not scooting away. She’s working to drag this out as long as she can, by every legal hangnail she can find, which are many, because that’s who she is: a fighter. One court onlooker describes her as the Bismarck, aware that she’s sinking but determined to take as many down with her as possible. At every turn, she disputes the allegations against her; she rebuts the statements of her accusers, she explains in long, digressive streams of speech the fine points of how the system and its cliquish cogs are cheating her. From her view, explained on the stand and in the hallways, the disciplinary system is weighted against her. “This is, and has been, about the way she looks from the very beginning,” one legal insider who supports her says. “It is about her weight.” He says that, truth be told, every judge closes his or her eyes and perhaps even naps on the bench. Every judge snaps at staff once in a while. But they don’t look like her. Her attorney says, “No one is 100 percent all the time,” but other judges aren’t strung up in the media for losing their cool. At a recess one morning last week, a TV reporter approached her and read a supportive e-mail from a viewer to Halverson; it said she was to be commended for standing up for what’s right, for defending herself against a witch hunt. It’s a sentiment that is rare on the post boards of most media sites, where she is a dozen times over called “disgusting” and an “embarrassment,” and where people hide behind their anonymity to say what they wouldn’t say otherwise.
At one break in the proceedings, an older woman dressed in Burberry and gold came in and gave Halverson a hug—one of about four supporters who came to the hearing at all, none of whom stayed for long. Less than an hour later, this woman had sized up the proceedings as ridiculous, and laughed aloud, and was asked to leave. On her way out, as bailiffs closed in around her, she yelled, “This is a kangaroo court! This is a kangaroo court!”
After which, no one did anything, except return to testimony, which included speculation about how cat hair could have gotten on a judge’s robe and whether the bailiff had to remove it.
Elizabeth Halverson is hurting. Her husband says she’s more mad than anything, and her attorney says she’s fine, and her accusers say she’s getting what she wants: attention, power. She’s got about 30 people in this room, including jurists and media, on the hook for a week, another bunch on her witness list for next week. But it doesn’t seem that simple.
A person doesn’t get into this situation—not the legal mess, nor the social shark pit, nor the physical burdens—by one big choice, but by a series of small ones, usually made out of fear and pain and pride, and by circumstances, snowballing. Sometimes you get so far into it you don’t know how to get out. Halverson tells me she can’t imagine what a good outcome would be now.
During much of the week’s hearing, serving as co-counsel with Schwartz to defend herself, Elizabeth, known by a family name, Lisa, before moving to Vegas, appears frustrated and anguished. Sitting in her scooter next to Schwartz at the defense table as he cross-examines witnesses brought by the special prosecutor, she constantly writes Post-Its to him. She scribbles on her legal pad for him to read. She whispers to him in an aggravated tone and once in a while speaks over him. She waves her hand for Ed time and time again; he hops up from his seat in the front row, receives direction from her and gets on his knees to dig through boxes of documents on the flatbed cart next to her, retrieving whatever document she needs. Everything seems flustered, unfinished, Hail Mary.
In the federal hearing in which she requested a temporary restraining order on the disciplinary commission, she speaks out when her constitutional attorneys don’t seem to be presenting all of the points to her satisfaction.
She interjects: “Your honor, with the court’s indulgence, may I represent myself at this moment?”
“No ma’am,” says Judge Robert Jones.
She offers to fire her attorneys right then if the judge will let her represent herself, but he refuses. “With all due respect you are represented by counsel, the counsel of your choosing ...”
She keeps on—“some of the facts are messed up”—and sighs.
“The world doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” she will say at the hearing later. “You’re not getting the whole story.” “You have to know the rest of the story.” “There’s more to it.” On the stand, under questioning by prosecutor Dorothy Nash Holmes on Thursday, Halverson seems unable to answer a question with a mere “yes” or “no.” Walker interrupts at least four times to remind her to keep her testimony brief; tells her she will get her chance to talk when her attorney calls her to the stand later. She tries to be demure and cooperative: She laughs self-effacingly, saying, “I’m trying, I’m sorry,” and “I did it again,” and it’s agonizing, but it seems she sincerely cannot stop herself, and with every question about every little incident that happened between her and one of her offended court employees, she goes on and on, in testimony the Review-Journal will call rambling and in clips a TV station will trim to feature her saying only that the foot rub ordeal was “a nightmare.” It is a tense stretch of the hearing. No one in this room is comfortable, least of all Halverson in her scooter—she asked for a big chair a while ago, but so far the commission hasn’t found one for her. And so she’s fighting to keep her bright green shirt pulled down over an escaping belly roll, which has made it onto CNN. She is fighting to stay leaned forward into the microphone. She is fighting to get her point across. She is fighting her body, her mind, the assholes all around her. She is saying, again and again, there’s more to the story.
Everyone knows that there is more to it, but most are really hoping they don’t have see it. Unless they can see it anonymously and judge the judge from afar. We are witnessing the epic struggle of a human being here, and hoping to make it go away with some fine points about decorum. In many ways, Elizabeth Halverson seems to be self-destructing: She can’t seem to stop talking when she should, she won’t stop stoking the legal fires, people gossip that she must be unable to stop eating. She emanates anger and pride and hurt, miles and miles of hurt, and through this process we are diligently trying to push her away, politely, hoping not to take on any collateral damage. See how to be normal?
In conversation, Halverson smiles a little, and seems warm, if leery and preoccupied. She produces e-mails in which court staff talked about getting rid of her. She explains away the testimony of her critics. But frequently, she follows conversations with the caveat, “That’s not for attribution,” as she feels she’s been burned before. In other conversations, she says the whole disaster is political, based on prejudice: “Look at me,” she says, not having to complete the thought aloud: I am a spectacle. It seems that the rest of the story, for Elizabeth Halverson, is that no one here really understands her, and perhaps she doesn’t believe anyone ever will.
On Friday she resumes the stand. Ed has had to go back home, because they forgot to bring an important piece of evidence, the business cards with Halverson’s title as Staff Attorney. Schwartz begins his questioning of Halverson, and within just a few minutes, she seems hostile toward him and a bit confused.
“What does P.O.S.T. mean?” he asks her about the bailiff-training program.
“Police Officer Standard Training.”
“But what does it mean to be P.O.S.T. certified?
“It means you’ve had Police Officer Standard Training,” she says, her tone sarcastic, fed up.
The two are gently combative, even though they are on the same team; or so Schwartz would hope. He asks her questions, and she answers indirectly, heading off into long digressions, never looking at him but instead looking straight ahead toward the wall. This is her opportunity to tell the story, to fix things, and it is not going powerfully well. She appears sick, and Wagner calls a 10-minute recess.
Halverson guns the scooter, taking off without looking at another soul. She flies down the long hallway toward her bathroom, alone, her black dress blowing behind her. Ed is not with her, nor is her attorney. When 10 minutes becomes 15 and 20, special prosecutor Nash makes the walk down the long hallway, because, she says, Schwartz asked her to check the ladies’ room for his client. By then, security guards are all around, and Ed has been called to return, and Halverson is suffering from a deep drop in her blood sugar, “a hypoglycemic event,” her attorney will call it later. Nausea, shaking. A condition that can result in unconsciousness. Misery. She has holed up in a side room with Ed, and the paramedic is standing by, but Ed says she will be okay. Wagner calls for an early lunch break. For an hour, no one goes to check on Elizabeth Halverson but her husband; Schwartz does a long live spot with TruTV; members of the commission walk downstairs together for lunch in the convention cafeteria.
When everyone returns, Halverson scoots up to the witness position in front, where she was, but she doesn’t look right. She is pale. Eyelids hanging. Wagner says perhaps they should call it a day. Halverson says she will go on if they think it’s best. Her attorney says they should adjourn and resume next week.
So before deciding, the commissioners go to their corner and huddle, all dark suits and bowed heads. The media stands in its corner, cameras aimed toward Halverson, the center of an awful world. She’s waiting to know whether she’s going to get a break. Ed stands in front of her, facing her, blocking the camera’s shots. She wipes her eye. It is a long couple of minutes, but then, it’s been a long couple of years, maybe a long lifetime.
The executive director of the Commission, David Sarnowski, breaks from his circle and hands her a piece of hard candy to help her battle the sinking blood sugar level. It is a small gesture, but a kind one nonetheless, and in this arena, constitutes a breach of battle lines, which seems insanely human. She accepts it, unwraps it and puts it in her mouth.
The disciplinary hearing resumes August 14 at the Las Vegas Convention Center.