Elizabeth Halverson is a judge. But the way courthouse staffers see it, she expects to be treated like a queen.
Her former bailiff, for example, says Halverson made him feel like a "houseboy." He says the judge — who is obese and uses a motorized scooter to get around — made him put her shoes on her feet, massage her back, cover her with a blanket for naps and make sure her oxygen tank was filled. He says she asked him, "Do you want to worship me from near or afar?"
Halverson also surrounded herself with her own hired guards, saying she did not trust the courthouse security force to protect her. Another time, she allegedly had her husband sworn in so that she could ask him under oath if he had completed chores at home.
Since then, the 50-year-old Nevada district judge has been locked out of her Las Vegas courtroom, suspended from the bench and brought up on judicial-misconduct charges that include not only misusing her position and treating her staff like personal valets, but also tainting juries and falling asleep on the bench.
Nevada's judicial discipline commission is preparing for a week of open hearings next month that could put an end to Halverson's career.
Many lawyers are unwilling to talk publicly about the case because of the powerful figures involved, but expect the proceedings to be entertaining, to say the least.
Halverson denies the allegations against her.
"We believe the Judicial Discipline Commission has overreached," said her attorney, John Arrascada. "It's apparent that some people believe her physical appearance somehow makes her unable to perform her duties as a judge." He added: "Last time I checked, being a judge doesn't require a beauty contest."
Halverson holds a law degree from the University of Southern California and worked as a law clerk in the state court for nine years before she was elected to the bench in the fall of 2006. She handled civil and criminal cases alike.
When the bailiff who complained about her, Johnnie Jordan Jr., was reassigned, Halverson hired her own guards and let them bypass security checks at the courthouse. She then called 911 when court administrators tried to enter her office.
Commission calls her 'substantial threat'
Last May, the chief Clark County District Court judge, Kathy Hardcastle, locked her out of her courtroom. The following July, six months after Halverson was sworn in, the Judicial Discipline Commission suspended her, accusing her among other things of creating a hostile work environment, hiring a technician to try to hack into the courthouse computer system, and causing mistrials in two sexual assault cases by improperly meeting with jurors.
The commission declared that she posed "a substantial threat to the public or to the administration of justice."
The case is laden with subplots. Hardcastle dismissed Halverson as a law clerk in 2004, saying that such a position is typically a short-time job and that it was time Halverson moved on. Halverson then mounted an unsuccessful bid for Family Court judge against Hardcastle's husband.
Hardcastle has insisted her actions against Halverson weren't personal.
Jeffrey Stempel, a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said he is troubled by what appears to be an attempt to "micromanage" a judge.
"Judicial removal should generally be reserved for corruption and complete incompetence or inability to do the job," Stempel said. "One question you have to ask is, 'Is this judge so bad we have to remove her before the voters have a chance to do so?'"
Dayvid Figler, a defense lawyer, said he had no complaints after trying cases in Halverson's courtroom.
"In fairness, she believes she's fighting the fight of a maverick," Figler said. "I think her position is, 'Why should I be another cog in the machine? Isn't it what the voters elected me to do, bring change?'"
Filed for re-election
Amid the hullabaloo, Halverson has filed for re-election in August to a six-year term and is soliciting contributions on her Web site. But she has also filed a request to stop the election, claiming that the Legislature unconstitutionally changed the procedures. She continues to draw her $130,000-a-year salary.
Halverson did not respond to an interview request. A shirtless man who answered the door at her home pointed to a "no trespassing" sign and ordered a reporter off the property. The yard is clean these days, after the city cited Halverson for leaving it strewn with junk and letting the water in her pool grow murky and stagnant.
In documents denying the allegations against her, Halverson has blamed disgruntled employees and vindictive colleagues.
She has submitted a report from a therapist who diagnosed her with an adjustment disorder, anxiety and depression. And she produced a letter from her physician, Dr. Michael Jacobs, who said she is diabetic, uses a wheelchair because of arthritis in her feet and knees, and needs oxygen to counteract the effects of sleep apnea.
Jacobs said a drop in blood sugar may have caused a brief episode in which she fell asleep in court. But he said there is no physical reason Halverson cannot be an effective judge.