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Pandemic forces pot trial move to Las Vegas Convention Center

Updated July 10, 2020 - 4:41 pm

As the wheels of justice trundle through the coronavirus pandemic, sometimes the court picks up and moves.

And so Friday, on the second floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center, District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez sat behind a table covered by a blue cloth emblazoned with the Nevada seal and the words Eighth Judicial District Court in white.

Rooms S229 to S231 had been opened to what resembled a roughly 17,000-square-foot lecture hall rather than a colossal courtroom that would host a potentially eight-week trial.

The masked judge faced dozens of masked attorneys, as she prepared to push forward next week with opening statements in a fight over 61 new conditional marijuana business licenses, where hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake.

“This facility, hopefully, will allow us to resolve this case in a socially distant fashion in order to meet the deadlines that have been put upon us,” Gonzalez said, referring to a decision that must be made by December. She also reminded everyone to wipe down their stations at the start and end of each day.

Dozens of companies that lost bids to open retail pot shops filed suit against the Taxation Department in late 2018, challenging the application process. Their lawyers argued that the state did not administer thorough background checks on applicants and conducted inaccurate and improper scoring to award new business licenses. The Nevada attorney general’s office has argued that state officials conducted an impartial review of each of the 462 applications. Those who won the licenses also hired attorneys and jumped in the fray.

Signs of the times

Nearly a year ago, an order from Gonzalez stopped the successful companies from opening new stores while the case worked its way through the court system, however now stalled by the yet-untamed infectious disease.

If the masks and carefully arranged tables were not indicative enough of the times, the judge, attorneys, court staff and witnesses faced another blue and white sign as they walked into the center’s South Hall: UMC COVID-19 TESTING CENTER.

In the late morning, just one floor below the makeshift courtroom, lines formed for those who wanted to know whether they were infected. Thousands are expected to be tested just steps away as the trial begins.

Health and safety paramount

A positive test among those involved in the trial, however, could upend the entire proceeding, where Gonzalez is set to decide the facts rather than a jury.

“The health and safety of all court participants is paramount to the Court,” District Court spokeswoman Mary Ann Price wrote in an email. “Should a participant test positive during the course of the trial, the trial judge, in consultation with the Marshal’s division, will determine the appropriate response, including a temporary suspension of the trial if necessary.”

Earlier this week, Chief Judge Linda Bell delivered an order that set the parameters for holding the trial in a space conducive to large gatherings.

“The number of participants on a daily basis is expected to exceed 50 individuals, including court staff and witnesses,” Bell wrote.

Gov. Steve Sisolak’s criteria for Phase Two of the coronavirus pandemic recovery plan states that public and private gatherings should be limited to no more than 50 people, but it also carves out an exception for events “providing essential services to the public.”

Shifting the location of a courtroom was contemplated long before COVID-19 clutched the valley, and taxpayers are expected to pay the $18,961.88 bill for the move.

“If a room for holding court at the county seat is not provided by the county, together with attendants, fuel, lights and stationery, suitable and sufficient for the transaction of business,” Nevada law states, “the court may direct the sheriff to provide such room, attendants, fuel, lights and stationery, and the expenses thereof shall be a county charge.”

Contact David Ferrara at dferrara@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039. Follow @randompoker on Twitter.

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