Panel seeks to suspend judges for cussing, clothing and coveting clerks

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Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Melanie Tobiasson testifies in a disciplinary hearing. (Photo: Dana Gentry)

A two-day hearing to determine whether the actions of Las Vegas Justices of the Peace Amy Chelini and Melanie Tobiasson warrant suspension without pay turned into an indictment of the Judicial Discipline Commission, the panel passing judgment on the women.  

Chelini and Tobiasson are alleged to have engaged in “a pattern of abusive, intimidating, condescending behavior and created a hostile work environment,” according to prosecuting officers for the Judicial Discipline Commission.  

The judges are alleged to have used profanity behind the scenes at the courthouse, but not on the bench. 

The two also admit they went to bat for favored court clerks, to the consternation of court officials, some of whom have since been terminated.  

“It bothered me the judges were getting involved in personnel matters when they shouldn’t be involved at all,” testified former court administrator Kim Kampling, who was terminated in March.

Witch hunt?

Chelini, who received a 92 percent retention score, the highest of the 15 Las Vegas Justice Court justices in the Review-Journal’s recent Judging the Judges poll, testified the proceeding against her and Tobiasson was a witch hunt and a waste of taxpayer money.  

“It’s no secret you guys have been after her forever,” Chelini said of her colleague and close friend, Tobiasson. 

“You’re smiling because you agree,” she said to prosecuting officers Thomas Bradley and Brian Hutchins.  

Tobiasson is the subject of another JDC complaint alleging she used her position as a judge to report an alleged teen prostitution ring to police. 

The commission’s investigator found the allegations against Tobiasson were not substantiated, however the commission pursued the case and demanded Tobiasson respond to questions under oath.  

That case has been on hold since Tobiasson successfully challenged the JDC’s procedures before the Nevada Supreme Court. 

Tobiasson has suggested the current complaint is retaliation for her Supreme Court challenge of the JDC’s procedures. 

Judicial discipline or a matter for HR? 

“Keep the timeline in mind as we move along today,” prosecuting officer Hutchins told the JDC members, implying the terminations of three court employees by Chief Judge Suzan Baucum were in retaliation for their cooperation with the commission. 

Hutchins noted that former court administrator Kim Kampling was fired unexpectedly in March, the same month the JDC received a letter from a clerk supervisor complaining about the judges. 

But Kampling later admitted her termination was not unexpected.  She had been under investigation and questioned by Clark County’s Office of Diversity for several months before being fired.

Two witnesses, David Denson and Elizabeth Cota, were terminated by Baucum in July, two days before their scheduled interviews with the JDC’s investigator.  

“That’s quite a coincidence,” remarked Judge Simon, the presiding member of the commission.

But Baucum testified that before she left on vacation in June, she instructed the acting court administrator to terminate Denson and Cota, who Baucum said had difficulties working with colleagues. Upon her return in July, Baucum learned the two were still employed and asked once again that they be terminated.  

Baucum characterized the employee complaints before the JDC as human resource matters.  

“A substantial threat of serious harm…”  

 The Judicial Discipline Commission has suspended judges only twice in state history, according to attorney William Terry, who represented Tobiasson.  

The first was in the case of former Clark County Judge Elizabeth Halverson, who slept during proceedings and demanded foot rubs from court staff. 

The second was former Clark County Family Court Judge Steven Jones, who was indicted by a federal grand jury and convicted for his role in a financial scheme. 

Terry argued neither of the judges before the commission have done anything to meet the standard of posing “a substantial threat of serious harm to the public or the administration of justice.”  

The t-shirt 

Former Justice Court administrator Kampling testified she was offended when she encountered Tobiasson in a courthouse parking lot wearing a t-shirt that said “Eat Shit and Die.”  

“I didn’t think anybody would wear something like that,” Kampling testified, adding she pretended not to care and told Tobiasson the shirt was cute.  “I wanted to take a picture of it. If I said ‘that’s so offensive,’ she wouldn’t let me take a picture of it.”

Tobiasson agreed the shirt could be perceived as inappropriate. 

“I did not feel it was because of the way it is hidden in the shirt,” she testified.

“So, the fact that it wasn’t in bold language made it okay, but the fact that it was a little harder to see makes it fine? Is that what you’re saying?” Bradley demanded. 

Tobiasson said she did not see the shirt as “denigrating the dignity” of her position.

“Where did you buy the sweater?” Bradley asked.  The commission deemed the question irrelevant. 

When asked if Judge Tobiasson dresses unprofessionally, Baucum noted Tobiasson is the best dressed judge in the courthouse.  

Judge Ann Zimmerman, who called the proceedings “petty,” said she found it “very sexist that you are even asking me that question” when queried by Terry about Tobiasson’s choice of attire.  “It’s 2019. Why are we talking about what a woman wears? We have one judge who shows up looking like a homeless person in shorts and flip flops. Judge Tobiasson shouldn’t be judged for what she wears if we’re not going to judge the male judges for what they wear to work.”  

The Judicial Discipline Commission is comprised of six men and one woman. 

Witnesses also alleged Chelini and Tobiasson use profanity when talking to each other in the halls of the courthouse or to close staff members in chambers.  

Tobiasson admitted to “cussing” but denied ever directing profanity at staff.  

Kampling testified that Chelini would greet her on the telephone by saying “What’s up, motherf—ker,” an allegation Chelini denied, while at the same time noting a member of Congress invoked the F word while advocating the impeachment of Donald Trump.

Kampling, the state’s star witness, suffered a blow to her own credibility when Chelini’s attorney, Tom Pitaro, produced the investigative report from Clark County’s Office of Diversity that prompted Kampling’s termination.  

The investigation found Kampling engaged in “inappropriate conversations of a sexual nature with her subordinate staff” and “engaged in sending inappropriate text messages to subordinate staff and on one occasion showing an employee a picture of a naked man.” 

“It’s referred to at the courthouse as the dick pic,” testified Chief Judge Baucum, who says she was summoned by Clark County management to discuss the report and Kampling’s future with the agency.   

“She (Kampling) had referred to Judge (Karen) Bennett(-Haron) as a f-ing black bitch,” Baucum testified about other infractions detailed in the investigative report. “She had ordered her staff to move her from one residence to another.”  

Baucum testified Kampling abandoned her dogs at her prior residence and later directed a court employee to retrieve the emaciated animals for euthanizing

“I was advised the dogs were left in an extremely poor state without food or water and she (the employee) felt that if she didn’t have the dogs put down and take care of it, Kim Kampling would fire her,” Baucum testified. “I was horrified.  They asked me how I wanted to proceed.  I called an emergency meeting of the judges.”

The judges voted in March to terminate Kampling, who testified she takes issue with the report’s findings.  

Commission on trial?

The JDC, which not only initiates complaints against jurists, also acts as prosecutor and judge.  Rules of civil procedure do not apply, nor do rules of evidence.  

Tobiasson is not alone in challenging the process for disciplining judges.  

Legislation to overhaul the JDC that was supported by an association of Justice Court justices failed to gain traction in 2019.  

On Tuesday, the JDC took the matter of the suspensions under advisement.

“I’m completely innocent and so is she (Tobiasson),” Chelini said on the stand. “And the only danger to justice right now is this prosecution.” 

Dana Gentry
Reporter | Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana is the mother of four adult children, three cats, three dogs and a cockatoo.