LAS VEGAS -- A judge who forced jurors to work through the night to accommodate her vacation schedule is again affecting the administration of justice at the district court. Two attorneys who spoke publicly about the all-nighter can no longer appear before the judge, and not at their request.
Following television interviews earlier this year about the case that garnered Judge Valorie Vega so much criticism, two public defenders received written orders removing them from her court. Though some suggest the move smacks of retaliation, the chief judge backs Vega's decision, calling it the "absolute right thing to do."
On December 17, 2010, the body language on display in district courtroom 16B spoke volumes long before Attorney Norm Reed finally says what nearly everyone else is thinking -- pointing out to Judge Vega the time -- 2:46 a.m.
Reed's objection to overnight deliberations in the murder trial of Victor Fakoya earns him a tongue-lashing from Judge Vega.
"You come in here and ask for more time, there is no more time," she said.
But it's Reed's statements to 8 News NOW weeks later, along with those of co-counsel Adrian Lobo, that result in their removal from her courtroom. Here's what they said, word for word:
"Ours is not to reason why, so we just tried to make it work. We can't say, 'What are you doing at 2:30,' or whatever because it's not our position to do that," said Reed. "Family first. I hope and I try to always put my family first. But my wife and my children understand when you're in trial, you're in trial."
"I felt bad for the jurors, I felt bad for our client. It was a tough situation," said Lobo.
"I know one thing, we're going to present our defense again, even if it is at 3 a.m.," said Reed.
Citing "post-Fakoya trial media matters," Judge Vega disqualified herself from all of Reed and Lobo's 17 criminal cases, including two that involve the death penalty.
"I don't think it's any secret that (post-Fakoya trial media matters) refers to your story that they were quoted making statements that could arguably be deemed critical of her," said Eighth Judicial District Court Chief Judge Jennifer Togliatti.
Though Chief Judge Togliatti will not address the actions that prompted two I-Team investigations of Vega, she supports Vega's decision to recuse herself. The Nevada Code of Judicial Conduct, she explains, requires it.
"If it could be perceived by anyone, including their clients, that they're being critical of Judge Vega, then at that point that client has to worry, 'Is my trial judge going to hold that against me?' That's not something somebody on trial for their life should have to think about," said Togliatti.
Vega's recusal, however, does not come at the request of Reed or Lobo's clients. Instead, according to her written order, it anticipates the appearance of impropriety based on the public defenders' statements to the media.
"It seems to me the comments the attorneys made were fairly measured," said Professor Kate Kruse with UNLV's Boyd School of Law. "I would hope that judicial officials would understand that when attorney's comment to the press on matters of public concern and direct their comments to the situation rather than personally attacking the judge, that reasonable people looking at the situation wouldn't even consider that the judge would retaliate against attorneys for that kind of exercise of their First Amendment rights."
Though the public defender stands by his attorneys, he has re-assigned Lobo to a different court based on Vega's prior request. Future cases involving Reed remain before the judge, should she decide to hear them.
It is unclear at this point whether Judge Vega will continue to recuse herself from every case involving Reed. Judge Togliatti says it is Vega's decision to make.
Reed and Lobo referred questions for comment to their boss, Phil Kohn. He says he does not plan to challenge Vega's recusal.
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