Divided state high court quashes investigation of news leaks
NEVADA–After a heated encounter that ended with two justices leaving a hearing before the final vote, the remaining members of the Nevada Supreme Court in Carson City in mid-September unanimously revoked an order that had appointed a special master to investigate the source of leaks to the news media about a secret judicial disciplinary probe.
The special master had the power to subpoena witnesses, but the investigation most likely would not have involved subpoenas of reporters, according to the Chief Justice. Nevada has a shield law that generally prevents courts from demanding that reporters reveal their sources.
In late 1993, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that the Supreme Court had intervened to block a judicial discipline commission probe into accusations against District Judge Jerry Carr Whitehead. As a result of the stories, a federal investigation into Whitehead’s conduct was initiated, the Nevada Supreme Court was heavily criticized, and the state legislature passed a resolution calling on the court to consider measures that would “foster public confidence and trust in the court system.”
In response, a panel of the Supreme Court issued an order in early September appointing the special master, stating “the need to expose and hold accountable said sources [of leaks to the newspaper] as the only effective means of restoring public respect for this court and the Nevada judicial branch of government.”
Two Supreme Court justices who had formerly disqualified themselves from the Whitehead case came out of recusal because of the court’s decision to appoint the special master.
After the two returning justices joined another justice in demanding an administrative hearing on the order, Chief Justice Steffen and Justice Springer strongly opposed the return and said they would consider any actions taken with regard to the investigation “void and of no effect.” Springer said the action by the two returning justices was an “exercise of raw power” to “thwart an investigation of themselves.”
At the September 15 hearing, Steffen and Springer walked out before the final vote was taken, according to the Review-Journal. The three remaining justices voted to rescind the order and stated in an opinion that the news leak investigation “serves no legitimate purpose and amounts to a gross waste of this court’s limited resources.”
The three-justice majority also voted not to pay any expenses associated with the investigation. The special master was to have been paid $145 per hour. (Petition for an Order Rescinding Appointment of Special Master)