A Las Vegas judge this week ordered a deputy public defender to be placed in handcuffs and seated next to inmates in court, saying he wanted to teach her "a lesson" about courtroom etiquette. But legal experts say it's the judge who may actually need a lesson in decorum.
On Monday, an irritated Justice of the Peace Conrad Hafen told Clark County Deputy Public Defender Zohra Bakhtary to "be quiet" as she tried to defend her client and keep him from serving a six-month jail sentence for violating probation, the Las Vegas Review-Journal first reported. As Bakhtary continued speak out in defense of her client, Hafen exploded and ordered a marshal to place Bakhtary in handcuffs and seat her in the jury box next to inmates.
Hafen told the Review-Journal that it's not "proper decorum" to talk over or interrupt in court. But Bakhtary told The Huffington Post that it was Hafen who first interrupted her while she was in the middle of defending her client. Here's the court transcript from the incident:
MS. BAKHTARY: But there has to be some leniency in this department.
THE COURT: No, there doesn't just.
MS. BAKHTARY: There has to be some indicative circumstance --
THE COURT: No. No, there doesn't. Let me show you the leniency. Just so everybody in the courtroom understands the leniency that was provided to the defendant. Okay? I'm going to take a few minutes and we're going to explain everything because I'm going to debunk this theory of yours. Okay, Zohra? Just so everybody knows, this defendant was charged with a felony and a gross misdemeanor. Okay?
MS. BAKHTARY: Judge, I would ask the Court not to --
THE COURT: Zohra, be quiet.
MS. BAKHTARY: Judge, you're asking --
THE COURT: Zohra --
MS. BAKHTARY: You're making --
THE COURT: Do you want to be found in contempt?
MS. BAKHTARY: Judge, you're asking --
THE COURT: Zohra, be quiet. Now. Not another word.
MS. BAKHTARY: Judge, you're --
THE COURT: Travis, right now. I'm tired of it. Right now. (Whereupon, Ms. Bakhtary was taken into custody.)
Hafen claimed to the Review-Journal that Bakhtary had exhibited "a progression" of unprofessional behavior in the courtroom for some time, and that he'd been "trying to work with her" but believed she didn't "understand" him. So he ordered her to be restrained.
"We went on with the rest of the calendar, and everything was fine," Hafen said.
Hafen ended up sentencing Bakhtary's client to six months in jail.
Bakhtary says she's appeared in Hafen's courtroom at the Regional Justice Center about once a week for about three years since joining the public defender's office, and that she's never acted unprofessionally. She told HuffPost that Hafen's decision to handcuff her and speak out against her professionalism was "extremely offensive."
“Every day I zealously represent my clients," Bakhtary said. "Every individual who goes through our criminal justice system has a constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel. It is a frightening day when a lawyer is locked up for fighting on behalf of her clients and their rights. The Court's constitutional duty is to listen to arguments, not silence them.”
Hafen did not immediately respond to HuffPost's request for comment.
It's well within a judge's power to restrain a person who is acting out of order in the courtroom, but rarely do they use this power against an attorney advocating on behalf of a client. And while Hafen didn't make any specific references to Bakhtary's gender in the court transcript, it's possible to see the incident as fitting into a larger pattern of men silencing women in this kind of setting.
Stephen Cooper, a former federal and D.C. public defender, wrote an article on Bakhtary's handcuffing that highlights two other instances in recent years in which female public defenders were treated with similar disrespect. He cites a particularly disturbing case from 2007, reported by The Washington Post, where a D.C. Superior Court judge ordered an attorney -- a woman of color, like Bakhtary -- to be "searched, shackled and detained" simply for attempting to inform the judge that her client was "homeless and poor." That judge was later found to be grossly out of line and was reprimanded for his behavior.
Phil Kohn, Clark County's chief public defender, strongly defended Bakhtary's conduct in court and told HuffPost that he's never had one of his attorneys restrained in the 10-plus years he's been working there. Kohn also criticized Hafen's demeanor in the courtroom and called out the inappropriateness of Hafen referring to Bakhtary by her first name.
"I believe in decorum. All parties should respect each other," Kohn said. "It should be 'Mr.' or 'Ms.' or 'Your Honor.' The fact that he's talking to her as 'Zohra' -- this is kindergarten stuff."
Bakhtary's colleagues at the Clark County Defenders Union also denounced Hafen's actions in a letter to news media.
"Handcuffing an attorney who is merely doing her job to teach her a lesson is simply improper and has never been done in the history of Nevada," the group wrote. "His actions were unreasonable and unprecedented. Judge Hafen was wrong."