The Nebraska Supreme Court on Friday dismissed appeals in a contentious child abandonment case, allowing a controversial judge to stay on the case and urging the judge and the parties in the case to get moving toward a resolution.
The decision — in a case featured in The World-Herald after the judge kicked three attorneys out of her courtroom — doesn’t mean that either the child or Judge Elizabeth Crnkovich are out of the woods yet.
The state’s high court noted how long this case has taken because of court decisions, prosecutors’ inability to locate the parents and appeals by the parents’ attorneys. Typical abandonment cases take three to six months.
This case has lasted 30 months.
“We alert the participants that the duration and the procedure utilized have not gone unnoticed,” the high court wrote in a unanimous opinion. “The focus of the case needs to return to the best interests of Michael.”
The case has stirred renewed questions about Crnkovich, who routinely is the lowest-rated juvenile court judge in the state in surveys of Nebraska attorneys.
Upon reading the recent World-Herald article about the removal of the three attorneys, State Sen. Ernie Chambers, who has a law degree and describes himself as “garbageman of the judiciary,” filed a complaint this week with the Judicial Qualifications Commission.
Long a critic of Crnkovich, he wrote that her behavior was “untoward, inexcusable and shockingly bizarre.”
The longtime senator from Omaha pointed to an incident 10 years ago when the judge ordered a deputy to handcuff an attorney who had argued with her and take him from her courtroom to a sixth-floor holding cell.
That handcuffing weighed on the minds of at least two of the three attorneys who were kicked out of her courtroom two weeks ago, he noted.
“Lawyers have been made fearful of being suddenly hauled off in handcuffs out of Judge Crnkovich’s courtroom due to such a startling, unjustified lunacy,” Chambers wrote.
Crnkovich has not returned phone calls concerning questions about her behavior.
Under the judicial code of conduct, judges are not permitted to talk about cases outside of court.
In the past, she has defended herself, saying she gets a bad rap because she is firm.
Chief Justice Mike Heavican, who is the head of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, has declined to comment on Crnkovich.
The high court didn’t address any of her recent behavior in its ruling, limiting its decision to issues of procedure.
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The case at hand:
In July 2016, Robert Normand, an over-the-road trucker, and his wife, Heather, had been traveling from Georgia to Montana with Michael, then 4, their two daughters and two large dogs.
The family stopped at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha to have Michael checked for what they believed was a virus, Robert said.
Michael, who has a rare genetic disorder and is profoundly disabled, has to be fed through a gastrostomy tube.
Authorities alleged that he was severely malnourished, weighing only 16 pounds.
Typically, a 4-year-old with that kind of genetic disorder should weigh 25 pounds, according to a doctor referenced in an Omaha police report. A police officer wrote that Michael’s ribs, collarbone and vertebrae were visible against his skin.
Authorities took custody of the child and charged the mother, Heather Normand, with felony child abuse. They allege that Heather acknowledged that she wasn’t feeding Michael properly. “I know I am wrong,” police say Heather Normand told them. “If I have to give up my rights, I will, if that’s what he needs.”
The Normands left Omaha and left Michael in the hospital and in foster care. They have not returned or shown up for court for either Michael’s juvenile court hearings or for Heather’s child abuse case. A warrant is still out in the child abuse case.
Douglas County prosecutors said they couldn’t find the Normands to serve them notice that they intended to remove Michael from their home.
In turn, prosecutors twice dismissed and refiled the case in juvenile court.
In time, Crnkovich removed the County Attorney’s Office and appointed a special prosecutor. The special prosecutor, Peder Bartling, was able to have the parents served within 30 days of getting the case.
Meanwhile, the parents’ attorneys moved to dismiss the case for lack of service and to have Crnkovich recuse herself. And the Douglas County Attorney’s Office appealed her appointment of a special prosecutor.
All of that came to a head during a curious hearing in the case earlier this month.
At that hearing, Crnkovich kicked the former Douglas County prosecutor and the parents’ attorneys out of her courtroom during a hearing over Michael’s placement — a hearing that took place while the case was under appeal. Under Nebraska law, judges are not supposed to hold hearings while cases are under appeal, except in rare cases.
Then came Friday’s ruling. The high court found “no merit” to the parents’ argument that they weren’t properly served. It noted that the Normands “asked the juvenile court (judge) to act” and recuse herself. Therefore, the parents effectively showed that they knew about, or had notice of, their child’s placement in foster care.
The high court ruled that it couldn’t address the appeal of the appointment of a special prosecutor because it wouldn’t be proper at this time.
In an addendum to the high court’s opinion, Justice Jonathan Papik cautioned that Crnkovich’s appointment of a special prosecutor could have been problematic.
“If a judge were to remove a prosecutor solely because of dissatisfaction with the prosecutor’s work, an opposing party may be able to raise serious questions about the judge’s impartiality,” Papik wrote. “But while there may be a case in which a party could argue that a court’s removal of a prosecutor and appointment of a replacement crossed the line into advocacy ... (the Normands) did not do so here.”
With the court’s ruling, the case will return to Crnkovich for further proceedings — and a hearing over where Michael should be permanently placed. Now 7, Michael is reportedly doing well in foster care.