UNLV audience hears push for state appeals court

Supreme Court justices during a panel discussion at Boyd Law School on Monday continued their campaign asking the public to vote yes on the initiative to establish a Nevada Court of Appeals.

Justice Nancy Saitta advocated for the creation of an appeals court, which would add three justices to handle about one-third of the roughly 2,300 cases appealed to the Supreme Court each year.

The justices each handled 333 cases in 2013, which was three times the 100 recommended by the American Bar Association.

Voters will decide in the Nov. 4 general election whether to approve the Court of Appeals, which will appear as Question No. 1 on the ballot. The Nevada Legislature unanimously approved it in 2011 and 2013.

Saitta was joined by Boyd Law School Associate Dean for Experiential Legal Education Anne Traum and lawyer Cliff Marcek at a panel discussion Monday night at the law school, located on the University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus.

While both Traum and Marcek said they supported the initiative, they expressed concern about how the court would decide which case would go to which court.

The model being pushed by Saitta and the other justices would send cases with constitutional issues, death penalty cases or cases in which a defendant was sentenced to life in prison to the Supreme Court to be heard.

Cases such as prisoners’ writs of habeas corpus regarding the food they are served or driver’s license revocation petitions would be heard by the appeals court.

Traum questioned whether the higher court would become a “lawyers court” for those who have the acumen to get their cases heard by the justices. And, in turn, would the Supreme Court deny access to people who represent themselves because of the high cost of legal representation and would those “pro se” cases be sent to the appeals court outright, the dean asked.

Saitta said the justices are studying national models to find the best practices and added that pro se cases would “absolutely not” automatically be shifted to the appeals court.

The Silver State is one of 10 states without an appeals court, and the high court’s seven judges are overloaded, Saitta said.

Some appeals linger in the high court for two, sometimes three years, the justice said.

Marcek said he has one case that has been waiting two years to be heard.

Nevada is joined by West Virginia, Montana, Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Wyoming as states without an appeals court.

What separates Nevada’s high court from those in other states is its caseload, Marcek said.

The Nevada Supreme Court sees more cases filed than all of the other states on the list and nearly 1,000 more cases than West Virginia, which was second on the list.

“I’m not saying we want to model ourselves after West Virginia,” Marcek quipped.

About 50 people, mostly Boyd law students, attended the discussion.

No one in the audience of future lawyers openly objected to expanding the legal system in Nevada. And several times during the discussion, the students said in unison “Vote yes on Question 1.”

An appeals court is expected to cost about $1.5 million a year to operate, but it would not require building courthouses. Saitta said the justices have plans to work it into the high courts budget.

Nevada voters rejected the proposal in 2010, with 53 percent voting not to change the state’s constitution, which requires the Supreme Court to handle all appeals.

The proposed appeals court that voters will consider in November is a “push down” model, which means the Supreme Court would take all appeals, delegating the basic cases to the lower court.

The appeals court would have precedent-setting authority, Saitta said.

That would free up the Supreme Court justices to publish more opinions — and set more precedents — in a state with very few written opinions.

If voters approve the appellate court, the Supreme Court is expected to have the power to tweak the court without going back to the Legislature.

Contact Francis McCabe at fmccabe@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5512. Follow @fjmccabe on Twitter.

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