After serving as a prosecutor in juvenile court for nine years, colleagues say, Elizabeth Crnkovich saw a juvenile court judgeship as a dream job.

She suddenly stepped down from that dream job in the past week after she was informed that she would be subjected to a judicial ethics inquiry spurred by a World-Herald article that revealed she had kicked three attorneys out of her courtroom, two courthouse sources said.

In a telephone call Wednesday afternoon, Crnkovich disputed that her retirement was sudden.

“It seems like a last-minute decision,” she said. “But it was something that I had been thinking about since I turned 65 in March.”

The two sources, who have worked for years in juvenile court and spoke on condition of anonymity, said Crnkovich’s hand was forced by an ethics investigation that began after The World-Herald reported that she kicked three attorneys out of a courtroom in March during a contentious child-custody case.

Citing that World-Herald story, State Sen. Ernie Chambers, who has a law degree and describes himself as the “garbageman of the judiciary,” sent a letter to the Nebraska Judicial Qualifications Commission.

An attorney for the commission then launched an initial, confidential investigation. Under state law, had the commission filed ethics charges, Crnkovich would not have been allowed to retire and receive a pension, “until the matter is resolved by the commission or the Supreme Court.”

The ethics charges against her were about to be formalized, the sources said.

Crnkovich’s response: “I don’t know who told you that. I was aware that Ernie Chambers was complaining. And honestly between 2016 and now, every effort to do the right thing has been more and more challenging. Frankly, I am tired.”

In her 25 years as a judge, Crnkovich was passionate about protecting children and had generally good rapport with juveniles and their parents. But she was also a lightning rod among attorneys and social service workers for what they saw as intemperate behavior.

Ten years ago, she had an attorney — an assistant public defender known for his mild-mannered nature — handcuffed and taken to a sixth-floor courthouse holding tank after he argued with her. The judge released him, within an hour, without a contempt citation.

Three years ago, she kicked a citizen’s watchdog group out of her courtroom.

And further reporting Wednesday revealed another exchange in recent months. Crnkovich had developed a program called “First Court” in which the judge, attorneys and social workers would meet off the record and without the juvenile or parents present to chart out how a case could play out. Crnkovich said the program was designed to strengthen and streamline the juvenile court process. It received positive reviews from members of a college group who studied it, she said.

But the off-the-record, outside-the-presence-of-the-parties nature of First Court led Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley to refuse to allow his attorneys to participate.

In one such First Court session, Judge Crnkovich and an attorney disagreed over her characterization of a parent in the case, according to multiple attorneys who were told of the exchange.

After the exchange, Crnkovich turned to a whiteboard in her courtroom and wrote in big letters that the attorney “thinks Judge C is a bitch.”

Shocked, the attorney asked the judge not to put words in his mouth.

When a reporter recounted that exchange to Crnkovich Wednesday, the judge laughed.

In those situations, she said, “We’re very casual. ... I don’t know if I wrote that on the board. Part of the process was to get to the heart of the matter and also to learn to trust each other. I was teasing him. ... It’s part of relieving the stress of very serious cases.”

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A few months after that exchange, Crnkovich booted three attorneys from her courtroom during the child-custody case. Although they had participated in the case before, she ruled that they didn’t have standing to participate in that particular hearing. The attorneys — Kristina Murphree, Karen Nelson and Mark Hanna — all asked to stay and watch from the gallery.

“You need to leave,” she said, according to those who observed the scene.

The ejection of the attorneys was remarkable for this reason: With extremely limited exceptions, all Nebraska court hearings — including juvenile hearings — are public. Murphree and Nelson, each of whom has at least 20 years of experience, were not found to be in contempt of court in any way. Nor was Hanna, the former prosecutor in the case.

At the time, Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine fumed.

“Everybody is aware that we don’t have secret hearings and secret trials in our country,” Kleine said then. “The Constitution says that we have public hearings and public trials.”

Chambers said he is relieved that Crnkovich stepped down but dismayed that she did so without consequence to her pension. By unofficial estimates, Crnkovich will receive an annual pension of about $118,000.

State lawmakers should shore up the loophole that allows judges like Crnkovich and former Nebraska Supreme Court Judge Max Kelch to retire before their charges are formalized, Chambers said.

“All they have to do to escape the consequences of their actions is to retire,” Chambers said. “They get full benefits. Their reputation is intact. This is something even the judges themselves should not want to see happen. It taints the very judiciary who claims it aspires to be open and transparent.”

In a 2018 survey of the state’s attorneys, Crnkovich was the second-lowest-rated judge among Douglas County juvenile, county and district judges. Sixty percent of attorneys said she should be retained. For perspective, the vast majority of judges receive retention ratings of 85% or higher.

Crnkovich was the lowest-rated judge in the state when it comes to attorneys’ views in one category: judicial temperament and demeanor. Attorneys rated her a 2 on a 5-point scale, where 1 stands for “very poor” and 5 means “excellent.”

Crnkovich’s retirement is the second in as many months. In August, Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge Doug Johnson stepped down after a long career. State court officials are expected to determine that the juvenile court caseload requires replacements and then begin taking applications from attorneys.

“I’m shocked,” said one longtime juvenile court attorney who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I know this isn’t the way she wanted it to end.”

Crnkovich insists that she has no regrets. She said she wants to be remembered for her concern about the children and families who appeared in front of her — “over 10,000 children, 15 to 25 cases a day.” She said she cherishes the notes she receives, sometimes years later, from kids and their parents. Just Wednesday, she said, she received flowers and well-wishes from an adult who appeared in her court as a child.

“I’d like to be judged by the people who I truly did judge — not those who have had their professional feelings hurt or don’t like the tone of a woman,” she said. “I don’t feel angry, but I do resist the implication that I should be ashamed of my career. I have served Douglas County well.”

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Reporter - Courts

Todd Cooper covers courts, lawyers, trials, legal issues, the justice system and government wrongdoing for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @CooperonCourts. Phone: 402-444-1275.

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