District Court fee proposed to fund nine more judges

For years, the growing number of civil lawsuits filed in Clark County has overwhelmed the court system. It now can take more than three years for a civil complaint to reach trial, officials said.

On Monday, Clark County and the state courts unveiled a plan to fund as many as nine new civil judges by increasing civil court filing fees. No taxes would be increased. Nineteen District Court judges now hear civil cases, but most of these judges hear criminal cases, as well.

"There’s no question that the justice system needs additional resources," said Clark County Commissioner Rory Reid said during a news conference at the Regional Justice Center.

The plan could increase the cost of filing a civil lawsuit in District Court from the existing $151 to between $250 to $270. The plan, if approved by the Legislature, could bring in $6.9 million to $8 million a year, which would go towards funding judges’ staff and other operational expenses.

"It is, in some respect, a user fee," said Nevada Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty of increasing the fees. "It is intended to place the financial burden on those who use the system."

Hardesty said Clark County is different from other communities in the West, in part because a huge number of construction defect lawsuits have been filed recently. Added to this are the dozens of medical malpractice lawsuits associated with a hepatitis C outbreak linked to the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada.

He said the recent economic downturn also has added more civil cases as lawsuits for debt collection and foreclosures increased.

In fiscal year 2008, there were more than 27,000 civil cases filed in Clark County; in 2007, there were about 24,000.

This means that judges end up handling more cases, slowing the courts’ ability to move cases through the system in a timely way. The American Bar Association proposes that civil cases be resolved within two years. In Clark County, it takes three years and six months on average to bring a case to trial.

"Justice delayed is justice denied," Hardesty said.

In making its decision to pursue higher filing fees, Hardesty said officials compared Nevada with other states in the West. Officials found that it was cheaper to file a civil complaint in Nevada than in California, Arizona, Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Utah.

It costs $151 to file a complaint in a civil case in Nevada. In California, the most expensive, it cost $320.

The filing fees haven’t been addressed in Nevada since 1993, said Family Court Judge Art Ritchie, the incoming chief judge of the District Court.

They propose the fees would go into effect July 1, 2009. The courts hope to have the new judges on the bench by January 2011.

Judges’ salaries of $160,000 are paid by the state, but the county pays for court staff, equipment and facilities. Hardesty said the other costs for a new civil judge run about $760,000 annually.

The plan won’t require building a new courthouse. Ritchie said additional space could be found at the Regional Justice Center.

Contact reporter David Kihara at dkihara@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039.

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