Drive through Nevada for even a few hours and you’ll probably see one: a handsome county courthouse.
Rural counties with far more jackrabbits than citizens might lack for some services, but most feature a proud courthouse made of native stone cut from a regional quarry. Some of those buildings have been standing since shortly after statehood.
They’re fine symbols of justice, those courthouses. But they’re only as good as the judicial infrastructure contained inside.
These days Nevada’s justice system is challenged at the highest levels by a dizzying backlog of cases currently pending before the seven-member state Supreme Court. Without an intermediate appeals process in place, by law the high court must review each case that comes before it without exception. The state constitution doesn’t allow for discretionary review of appeals. The Supreme Court is considered the court of last resort.
With 82 District Court judges deciding cases, there’s no shortage of appeals to the high court. In fiscal year 2013 alone, there were 2,333 cases filed. The court, justices and litigants agree, is simply overwhelmed by one of the highest ratios in the nation. That load can’t help but translate into delays, whether the subject before the court is a child custody dispute or a complex litigation.
Although the idea to create a Court of Appeals isn’t new, during the 2013 Legislature, then-Chief Justice Kristina Pickering and Justice James Hardesty took the extra step of addressing the lawmaking body about the necessity and costs involved. Failing to improve the infrastructure would exact a far greater cost to the system.
Once their presentation was finished, a strange thing happened at the Nevada Legislature, something almost as rare as snow under the silver dome. Lawmakers from urban and rural counties, from both houses and from both sides of the political aisle agreed. Then, Gov. Brian Sandoval also agreed that changes in the system were necessary.
The result of that rare unanimous concurrence is an opportunity for all Nevadans to help ensure justice at the highest levels of our state will be more efficient for everyone. This year, voters will decide whether to endorse the creation of a Court of Appeals by agreeing to amend the state constitution.
Fortunately, creating the court doesn’t mean building a costly courthouse to go with it. Under the “push down” model under consideration, appeals would first flow to the Supreme Court, then approximately one-third would be reassigned to the Court of Appeals. If the court is created, three new judicial positions with appropriate staff would be funded at a cost of approximately $1.5 million per year. Cases would be heard in existing courtrooms, and additional appeals to the Supreme Court would be discretionary rather than mandatory.
In her State of the Judiciary message last year, Pickering noted the general consensus on the need for the new appeals function and added that, “regardless of criticism, it would be irresponsible for us not to report just how serious a problem the court’s caseload and backlog pose to individual litigants, small and large businesses and the state as a whole.”
(Although a similar ballot measure failed in 2010, the appeals court’s advocates point to a recent survey that shows Nevadans slightly in favor of the expansion.) In a recent interview, Hardesty admitted the legislative consensus was uncommon but a welcome development.
“It’s an interesting case because this doesn’t have any of the divisiveness,” Hardesty said. “It’s extremely important to the future of justice in Nevada.”
Between now and Election Day, their greatest challenge will be reminding voters to look past the brick and mortar of the state’s frontier judicial system and getting them to agree that the needs of a modern Nevada demand a change in the infrastructure.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 702-383-0295.