Las Vegas judge under investigation

The 9th Circuit has hired a law firm to suggest action on James C. Mahan, sources say.

December 30, 2006|Michael J. Goodman | Special to The Times

LAS VEGAS — The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco has launched an investigation of a federal judge who awarded more than $4.8 million in judgments and fees without apparently disclosing his personal, political and business ties to those who benefited, two sources close to the inquiry told The Times.

U.S. District Judge James C. Mahan of Las Vegas, a popular state judge who joined the federal bench in 2002 after his nomination by President Bush, was the subject of Times investigative reports in June.

Investigations of federal judges are confidential. However, two people independently familiar with the matter said that a law firm hired by the 9th Circuit has scheduled interviews with key figures in the Mahan case.

The law firm was hired by the 9th Circuit "to investigate and make a recommendation" regarding possible disciplinary action for Mahan, one of the sources said.

The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they might run afoul of the court's secrecy requirements for judicial inquiries. Ninth Circuit confidentiality rules apply to "any person in any proceeding" and provide that violators "could be held in contempt."

The federal investigation follows several reforms initiated at the state level after the series of Times articles exposing irregularities in the Las Vegas judiciary. The measures include the appointment last month of a 30-member statewide commission "to investigate and make recommendations" for reforming the state justice system.

On Mahan, the articles detailed how he awarded fees in a dozen state and federal cases to a former client and business associate who twice served as his judicial campaign treasurer and who was instrumental in getting him appointed to the bench.

Mahan also approved additional fees for his former law partner, who was providing free legal services for both the judge's wife and the judge's executive judicial assistant, and with whom the judge was still tied financially through property ownership and a profit sharing plan.

A search of court records found no indication that he disclosed his ties to those who were awarded the judgments and fees.

Mahan angrily denied any wrongdoing before publication of the articles, and has not responded to questions and repeated phone calls since.

The disclosures in June prompted U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. of Los Angeles, former chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, to publicly urge Chief Judge Mary M. Schroeder of the 9th Circuit, to investigate.

"I fully expect the chief judge to do something," Hatter said shortly after the articles appeared.

Bound by its strict rules of secrecy, the 9th Circuit, which oversees Nevada, California and seven other Western states, has kept silent on whether it is even considering an investigation.

But the hiring of an outside law firm by the 9th Circuit "suggests that a special committee has been appointed" by the chief judge to investigate Mahan, said Ronald D. Rotunda, a law professor at George Mason University who is an expert on legal ethics.

Special committees are appointed when the chief judge determines that an original complaint filed with the court clerk is credible and "raises an issue that should be investigated," according to rules of the 9th Circuit Judicial Council.

Special committees are then allowed to "arrange ... for the hiring of special staff to assist in the investigation," Judicial Council rules state. A federal judge said this "special staff" sometimes consists of an outside law firm.

Typically, a special committee passes its findings and recommendations to the council for further investigation, or, in the case of impeachment, referral to the Judicial Council of the United States.

Impeachment of federal judges, who are appointed for life, is rare, as is lesser disciplinary action such as censure. Only a few 9th Circuit judges are believed to have been disciplined in the last 15 years.

Mahan was one of eight former and current Nevada judges featured in the Times report in early June. The articles detailed how some state judges routinely ruled in favor of friends, former clients and business partners, and how they solicited campaign donations from lawyers appearing before them and then ruled favorably.

Reaction by the Nevada Supreme Court, which supervises the state judiciary, was immediate and is ongoing.

Last week, the state's highest court added two reform measures as rule changes to the Nevada Code of Judicial Conduct. The reforms were proposed in a petition filed last month by retiring Chief Justice Robert E. Rose and discussed in a public hearing Dec. 5.

One new rule requires judges to disclose their relationship to former law clerks appearing before them as attorneys for at least three years after the clerkship.

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