Old Coconino County Courthouse in Flagstaff, Arizona. [Photo transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons. Author Direnzoa at English Wikipedia]

A Coconino County judge has been publicly reprimanded twice this year for violating Arizona’s Code of Judicial Conduct, with one of the reprimands involving an order she signed placing a man in a psychiatric facility even though the judge had no legal authority to do so at the time.

That judge, Cathleen Brown Nichols, was the subject of two complaints investigated by the Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct, which actually filed one of the two complaints against the superior court judge.

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The first complaint against Nichols came from the Coconino County Legal Defender’s Office in 2021. It detailed the judge’s actions which led to the admission of L.M. to a psychiatric facility in Mohave County “for medication management and stabilization.”

Public records show L.M. was arrested April 1, 2021 for felony offenses. The Coconino County Sheriff’s Office was ordered to release L.M. on April 7 after the county attorney’s office did not file a formal criminal complaint.

But L.M. was not released on April 7, even though there was no active charges against him.

Instead, Nichols signed an order later that date instructing the jail to transport L.M. to Mohave County for mental health treatment. Deputies complied with the judge’s order the next morning, apparently failing to notice there was no court case number listed on the order.

The problem, according to the CJC, is that Nichols had no jurisdiction over L.M. when she signed the order. In addition, the judge failed to provide any notice to L.M.’s attorney or even the Coconino County Attorney’s Office, thus “wholly circumventing the due process requirements contained in Title 36.”

Title 36 refers to a portion of the Arizona Revised Statutes which defines the legal options available to a member of the public or a government agency to address a person who needs a mental health evaluation or mental health treatment because they may harm themselves or others, but who is not seeking help on their own.

The three signers of the complaint noted that referring a judge’s actions to the CJC “is a serious matter” which was not entered into lightly.

“However, taking Judge Nichols’ actions here to their logical conclusion would mean that anytime jail staff (or conceivably anyone else) thinks someone should be held beyond a release order signed by other judges all they have to do is call Judge Nichols,” the complaint states, adding that Nichols ordered the continued detention of L.M. based on no active case, no pleadings, “and no conceivable jurisdiction.”

In response, Nichols told the CJC she had a conversation about L.M. with a psychiatric nurse practitioner who worked at the jail. The nurse practitioner believed L.M. posed a danger to himself and others but had been unable to initiate a Title 36 evaluation because the county’s contracted facility would not accept L.M. because of a “prior incident.”

“The Nurse Practitioner consulted with doctors at Southwest Behavioral Health Services, who in turn coordinated with the Kingman Recovery Unit in Mohave County for admission of L.M.,” according to the CJC file. Nichols relied on that ex-parte information when deciding to sign the order which kept L.M. in custody an extra day and led to his removal from Coconino County.

In issuing a public reprimand, the CJC noted it found “clear and convincing evidence” that Nichols’ actions violated four rules of the Code of Judicial Conduct, including Rule 1.1. which requires a judge to “comply with the law” and Rule 2.6(A) which requires a judge to accord “every person who has a legal interest in a proceeding, or that person’s lawyer, the right to be heard according to law.”

The other rules violated by Nichols are listed as Rule 1.2 which requires a judge to promote “public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary,” as well as Rule 2.9(B) which addresses what a judge must do upon receiving unauthorized ex parte communication.

Months after the L.M. complaint was filed against Nichols, the CJC filed its own complaint against the judge for failure to timely issue “in excess of twenty” court rulings from mid-2020 to mid-2021.

Nichols’ response noted she had some staffing issues during that time and that various parties and/or her staff had not always presented the judge with the necessary proposed orders in some cases.

The second complaint was also resolved through a public reprimand for two violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct.

Nichols was first elected to the superior court in 2012, followed by reelection in 2016 and 2020. She came to the bench after having served as a justice of the peace pro tempore in Flagstaff as well as a superior court judge pro tempore.

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