Wednesday, March 2 2011 10:16 PM EST2011-03-03 03:16:41 GMT
A judge who forced jurors to work through the night to accommodate her vacation schedule is again in the spotlight. Two attorneys who spoke publicly about the all-nighter can no longer appear before the judge, and not at their request.More>>
Investigative Reporter Colleen McCarty and Photojournalist Kyle Zuelke
Thursday, December 23 2010 2:16 PM EST2010-12-23 19:16:07 GMT
The murder trial of Victor Fakoya is the talk of the county courthouse, and not just because he was acquitted. Jurors in the case were forced to work through the night last week to accommodate the judge's vacation schedule.More>>
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LAS VEGAS -- Late last year, Clark County District Court Judge Valorie Vega forced a jury to begin deliberations in a murder trial at 3 a.m. because she had vacation plans. Though some in the legal community suggest Vega is a good jurist who just made a bad decision, the judge defends the all-nighter and continues to set the people's business around her personal schedule.
Judge Vega chastised the attorneys for stretching the four week trial to the brink of her six week deadline without any mention of the hours lost to afternoon recesses for her own scheduling conflict -- her daughter's soccer games.
Deliberations in the murder case of Victor Fakoya began just before 3 a.m. Protests from Fakoya's lawyers Adrian Lobo and Norm Reed were answered with contempt.
"I told counsel this case had to be done by Thursday because I'm packing up and leaving town and going on vacation for two weeks," said Judge Vega in court.
"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 Attorney Reed after the case was decided.
Records reveal Vega left court around 2 p.m. on six occasions during the Fakoya trial, a routine that continues despite the fallout.
Last month alone, the judge was found warming the bleachers instead of the bench, not once, not twice, but five times -- January 4th, 6th, 10th, 12th and the 26th. Despite repeated requests for an interview, both off and on the field, Vega remains mum.
"Judge, it appears based on the frequency of your soccer schedule that you're working part time. Is that the case?" asked Reporter Colleen McCarty.
In a written statement, the judge insists she typically works in excess of 40 hours per week, though she offers no explanation for a court calendar that seems to revolve around game day.
"In the case of the State of Nevada vs. Victor Fakoya, I took prearranged leave that was agreed upon by all parties. I typically work well in excess of 40 hours a week, not only in court, but also performing administrative duties, preparing for trials, motion calendars and decisions. For more than 28 years, I have taken my role as a public servant very seriously and have always ensured that my obligations to the citizens of Clark County are met," she said in the statement.
State Assemblyman William Horne chairs the Assembly Judiciary Committee. In 2009, state lawmakers funded seven new district court judges to alleviate backlogs in one the country's busiest courts. But is it acceptable to leave at 2 p.m. on a regular basis?
"It is ok if they're doing their job," said Horne. "If they're sacrificing the quality of work that they've promised to do to the public, then I would say they need to re-evaluate whether or not they are the right person to sit in that public office."
Though district court judges earn $160,000 a year, representatives from both the district court and the Nevada Supreme Court explain they don't supervise a judge's day to day activities.
A review of Vega's court calendar reveals she heard few afternoon proceedings in the month of January, and only one that conflicted with her daughter's soccer schedule.
"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," said Reed.
Reed and Lobo secured a not guilty verdict for Fakoya, yet their enthusiasm for the outcome remains tempered by their frustration with the process.
"I felt bad for the jurors, I felt bad for our client. It was a tough situation," said Lobo.
They fear the situation may repeat itself the next time their client's fate rests in Judge Vega's court.
"I've got other murder trials in that department and I'm hoping we'll work our way through them. I know one thing, we're going to present our defense again, even if it is at 3 a.m.," said Reed.
For additional perspective on Judge Vega's performance, the court provided 8 News NOW with recent caseload statistics. As of early January, Vega has the lightest caseload among judges who hear both civil and criminal cases.
Her case clearance rate, one objective measure of a court's efficiency, is the highest among her peers for civil cases, but near the bottom for her criminal calendar.
According to the American Judicature Society's Center for Judicial Ethics, states like California, Arizona and Florida have publicly disciplined judge's for similar behavior. No word yet on what if anything may be percolating in Nevada's Judicial Discipline Commission.