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.”
Sign up for World-Herald news alerts
Be the first to know when news happens. Get the latest breaking headlines sent straight to your inbox.
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.
“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.”
1 of 107
The moon rose over the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge in the early morning hours.
On the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Ed Morrissette a 95-year-old WWII veteran of Papillion, reminisced while toasting to his fallen comrades with a drink accompanied by John Adams, Tom Demro, Antonio Chickinelli and Jeff Hadden at Patriarch Distillers Inc. in La Vista, Nebraska, Thursday, June 6, 2019. Morrissette who was part of the second wave on D-Day at Omaha Beach drank a Canada Dry while the others had Soldier Valley Omaha Beach D-Day 75th anniversary bourbon whiskey.
Major League Baseball debuted in Omaha on Thursday June 13th as the Royals faced the Tigers at TD Ameritrade Park.
Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera signed autographs for fans prior to a Major League Baseball game against the Kansas City Royals at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska, on Thursday, June 13, 2019.
Omaha Burke's Jaylon Roussell jogged the field people to participating in the Nebraska Cornhuskers Friday Night Lights event at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Louisville's Adam Elliott warmed up before the start of game 7 of the College World Series.
Louisville's Drew Campbell celebrated a walk-off win on his hit in the bottom of the 9th against Mississippi State during game ten of the College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park.
Te'Andi Titus, left, and Kevin Kalaw, both of Omaha, read on the dock at Standing Bear Lake as a cool breeze swept over the lake, keeping the mosquitoes at bay.
Vanderbilt and Michigan faced off in the College World Series finals at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska in 2019.
Michigan's Jordan Brewer and Jack Blomgren celebrated after defeating Vanderbilt in their College World Series game.
A B-2 stealth bomber flew over as Michigan stands during the National Anthem before their College World Series game.
Vanderbilt faces Michigan during their College World Series game.
Vanderbilt's Harrison Ray signed autographs before the start of game 3 of the CWS championship.
Vanderbilt fans celebrate at the Commodores capture a national title with a win over Michigan.
Michigan players mingled prior to their College World Series game against Vanderbilt.
Vanderbilt celebrated their win over Michigan during the third game of the champion series of the College World Series.
Chris Isaak performed at the free Memorial Park Concert at Memorial Park.
Omaha firefighter David Kirchofer provided water to Louie the dog, after Kirchofer helped battle a a fire at 5427 86th Court. Louie, who does not live in the unit that caught fire, was interested in all the action.
Ray Renk of San Francisco, California, holds his daughter Kennedy, 8, alongside his son Benjamin, 10, while sporting personalized suits and watching Warren Buffett, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, walk the convention floor during the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Meeting at the CHI Health Center Omaha in Omaha, Nebraska, Saturday, May 4, 2019.
Phoebe the giraffe eats lettuce fed by visitors as the Lincoln Children's Zoo provides a sneak peek at their new exhibits and expansion in Lincoln, Nebraska, Thursday, May 9, 2019.
Lincoln Southeast’s Katie Whitehead, center, and Caroline Miller, right, celebrate with teammates including Ally Keitges, left, after winning the No. 1 doubles against Millard North during the NSAA Class A girls state tennis championship match at Koch Family Tennis Center in Omaha, Nebraska, Friday, May 17, 2019.
Omaha Bryanâ€™s Darwin Loftin lands a long jump during the Metro Conference track meet at Omaha Burke.
Millard West's Corbin Hawkins waits out the rain delay in the dugout. The baseball game between Millard West and Creighton Prep was postponed because of the weather.
Archbishop Bergan's Luke Jessen hits the center field wall trying to catch a hit from Millard West's Max Anderson resulting in an in-field home run during their state tournament game.
Crawford's Jillian Brennan (13) points up to the sky before the Class D 3,200-meter final at Omaha Burke High School during day one of the state track meet.
Gretna's Ashley Marsh connects with the ball alongside Marian's Maureen Tolley during the semifinal round of the Class A girls state soccer tournament at Morrison Stadium in Omaha, Nebraska, Saturday, May 11, 2019.
Elkhorn South players celebrate their championship while reading the name plate on the trophy after defeating Skutt during the NSAA Class B girls state soccer championship game Morrison Stadium in Omaha, Nebraska, Tuesday, May 14, 2019.
Jacob Himelick, left, a Millard north senior, chats with fellow senior Jace January as he signs January's year book. January likes to spend the time between classes greeting fellow students in the hallway.
Hannah Gruhlkey hugs her goat Griffin as he nibbles on her hair during a Country Bumpkin 4-H Club meeting at the Living Legend Farm.
Chipper Fyfe stands on a dike to see how far floodwaters have risen just west of Hamburg, Iowa.
Nebraska pitchers stay loose before their NCAA Regional game in Oklahoma City.
Tad Badje, 49, right, and wife Shelly Badje, 48, pepper Title Boxing Club's general manager, Chris Gerhardt's mid-section during a two-on-one body shot race as part of their work out at Title Boxing Club in Omaha, Nebraska.
Two-year-old Hannah Bonnot of Denver, Colorado, stands in awe before "Mountain Outlaw" taken at Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, on display at Tom Mangelsen's "Life in the Wild" exhibition at the Durham Museum in Omaha, Nebraska.
A deer walks through the tall grass at Chalco Hills Recreation Area in Omaha, Nebraska.
Canada geese fly over Flanagan Lake at sunset in Omaha, Nebraska.
The sunset is reflected in some open water at Flanagan Lake in Omaha, Nebraska.
Ian Murphy, canvases the nearly 90 snow people which are on display at the Leavenworth Park in Omaha, Nebraska. Neighbors such as Murphy say the snow people didn't exist yesterday and claim it happened over night or possibly early this morning.
Husker fans rock The Rock and corn hats in the first half as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln men's basketball team hosts Michigan State at the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska.
An allosaurus appears to be eyeing a tasty, 19-month-old morsel named Austin Haseltine as he is lifted from the shoulders of his grandpa, Greg Fasano, by his mother, Amy Haseltine, with his father, Jim Haseltine looking on. The Dinosaur UpROAR exhibit at Lauritzen Gardens, 100 Bancroft Street in Omaha, Nebraska, features 20 life-sized installations as well as discovery stations and educational activities set throughout the gardens.
The setting moon is framed by some dried flowers at Lake Zorinsky in Omaha, Nebraska.
A person goes for a run along the snow covered trails at Lake Zorinsky in Omaha, Nebraska.
The sun rises on a snow covered Lake Zorinsky in Omaha, Nebraska.
Pink and blue balloons float past the Sower statue on the Nebraska State Capitol after balloons were released for the 45th annual Nebraska Walk for Life in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Steam rises over north downtown Omaha, Nebraska, as morning lows were below -10 degrees.
Water covers a road near Valley, Nebraska, on Friday, March 15, 2019.
Heavy machinery stacks up concrete chunks on the shore of the Elkhorn River at the Q Street bridge as part of an effort to stabilize the bank on the recently flooded river.
Sarpy County Sheriff's Deputy Darin Morrissey rides an ATV through floodwaters in Hawaiian Village.
Omaha Roncalli's Shane Orr celebrates their double overtime win over Aurora during a semifinal game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
The Auburn bench and crowd react to Auburn's Cameron Binder hitting what would be the game winning shot against North Bend Central during the championship game in the Class C1 Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Nebraskaâ€™s Adrian Martinez runs out of the end zone after a play during spring football practice at the Hawks Championship Center in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Treyton Gubser, left, and his uncle Daniel Gubser paddle using shovels through the floodwaters after they rescued Daniel's kid's cat, Bob, in Hamburg, Iowa.
Highway 81 is covered in floodwaters south of Columbus, Nebraska.
A Nebraska National Guard helicopter flies over a flooded Waterloo, Nebraska, in March.
Cars drive drive across a flooded Platte River on Highway 50 just north of Louisville, Nebraska.
A Canada goose flies over Matthew J. Placzek's "Monument to Labor" sculpture as floodwaters from the Missouri River begin to recede on the Omaha riverfront.
Floodwaters closed Ave I at North 26th Street in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
A truck drives through a flooded road near the Platte River in April.
Lincoln Pius X's Austin Jablonski holds up the net after his team defeated Omaha Roncalli in the championship game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Amelia Fritz, right, holds on to her daughter-in-law Tesha Fritz in Glenwood, Iowa. They were evacuated from Pacific Junction, Iowa, after floodwaters hit the town last night. They were part of 15-relatives all staying in the same house or in a camper in the front driveway.
Robert Jones looks around his flood damaged house north of Highway 50, near Louisville,Nebraska. The floor, which is normally a white tile, is covered in mud.
Aurora's Nicholas Hutsell, left, fouls Omaha Roncalli's Alexander Rodgers during a semifinal game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Lincoln Pius X's Charlie Easley, left, and and Omaha Roncalli's Alexander Rodgers stretch for a loose ball during the championship game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family's Trent Reardon, left and Jason Sjuts celebrate their victory over Fremont Bergan during the championship game in the Class D1 Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Aurora's Kaleb Moural wipes the sweat from his face during the second half against Omaha Roncalli during a semifinal game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Bob the cat looks on from a basket in a boat after being rescued from floodwaters in Hamburg, Iowa.
A vehicle is stuck in floodwaters near 1st Street and Pierce Street in Fremont, Nebraska.
Tim Rockford, left, and David Bauer, tour the Bellwood Lakes neighborhood which was destroyed by the flooding days prior along the Platte River in Bellwood, Nebraska.
Lincoln East's Charlotte Bovaird practices her shot and she and her teammates warm up in the hallways before the start of the game. Lincoln East played Millard South in a Class A first-round basketball game during the girls state basketball tournament at the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Westside poses with the championship plaque with the winning score on the wall behind them after Omaha Westside defeated Millard North 54-53 at Omaha Westside in Omaha, Nebraska.
Chris Saenz of Bellevue works out at FIT IN THE CITY in Papillion, Nebraska.