LAS VEGAS (AP) - A defense attorneys’ group wants a judicial oversight panel to discipline a Las Vegas judge for ordering a public defender handcuffed in court last month when she wouldn’t stop arguing to keep a client out of jail.
Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice accuses Justice of the Peace Conrad Hafen of violating judicial rules of conduct and of demeaning and humiliating attorney Zohra Bakhtary during the May 23 encounter.
It also cites two other cases since December in which Hafen declared people appearing before him in misdemeanor contempt.
“Appropriate sanctions are required,” the organization said in its May 27 complaint to the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline. “Punishing a public defender for simply doing what is required of her demonstrates a callous disregard for the defense function, the dignity of defense counsel and the integrity of the criminal justice system.”
Paul Deyhle, commission executive, confirmed receipt of the complaint, but said he couldn’t comment about it. He said it could take several months to investigate and report to the commission, which meets quarterly.
Hafen, a former prosecutor in the Nevada state attorney general’s office, was elected to the bench in 2010. He is up for re-election this year. Justices of the peace in Nevada hear misdemeanor cases and hold preliminary hearings to determine if there is enough evidence to move felony cases to state courts for trial.
Neither the judge nor attorney Lance Hendron, president of the 150-member attorneys’ group, responded last week to messages from The Associated Press.
Bakhtary referred questions to her attorney, Dominic Gentile, who said he intends “to set the record straight and to show that Zohra should not have been held in contempt.”
“I’m not out to get a judge,” said Gentile, a prominent Nevada criminal defense and constitutional lawyer and adjunct law school professor. He said he wasn’t a party to the commission complaint.
“The complaint is more than Zohra,” Gentile said. “It’s not in the best interest of Zohra or our firm to become part of the larger picture.”
A public hearing about the conduct of a sitting judge is rare in Nevada. Commission action can range from dismissal of charges to a public reprimand to banishment. Proceedings can take years. In March, the commission prohibited a former Las Vegas-area family court judge already convicted and imprisoned in a federal fraud case from ever returning to the bench.
Hafen has said he ordered Bakhtary taken into custody to teach her a lesson about courtroom decorum and etiquette.
Bakhtary said at the time that she was trying to get the judge to consider her argument before jailing her client.
A court transcript showed Bakhtary kept talking and the judge warned her several times that she faced being held in contempt for interrupting while he tried to rule in her client’s probation violation case.
With Bakhtary handcuffed and sitting with defendants in the courtroom, the man was sentenced to six months in jail. Hafen then ordered Bakhtary released from custody and told her to resume the court calendar.
“I think she’s learned a lesson,” the judge said.
The attorneys’ complaint notes that Hafen denied Bakhtary’s request after she was freed to summon her supervisor to the courtroom.
In December, Hafen ordered a man representing himself in a casino trespassing case taken into custody when he tried to invoke a 14th Amendment guarantee of due-process rights while questioning a witness, according to a transcript of that case. The man was released later that day.
In April, the judge ordered a woman who had been arrested on a bench warrant and held as a material witness jailed after an unspecified outburst in the courtroom. The woman was released two weeks later, when the defendant in the original case waived a preliminary hearing.
The commission complaint concerning Hafen is separate from a May 25 public protest signed by 12 board members of the 105-member Clark County Defenders Union.
It called handcuffing a public defender in Nevada unreasonable, unprecedented and improper.
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