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Chief justice laments judicial budget cuts in Nevada, nation

CARSON CITY — Nevada Supreme Court Chief Justice Kristina Pickering told state legislators Friday that budget cuts imposed on the courts nationally and in the state are causing economic losses as businesses and residents face delays in resolving disputes.

She hopes to avert further cuts to the judiciary and seeks legislative support for the establishment of an intermediate appellate court.

“With their assets tied up in litigation and their financial future uncertain, they cannot invest, hire, or put … their resources … (toward) other, more productive uses,” Pickering said in her State of the Judiciary speech delivered in a joint session of the Senate and Assembly.

“Decreased funding, reduced workforces, mandatory furloughs and the changing composition of our trial courts’ caseload has forced our trial courts to do more with less than ever before,” she said.

In her remarks, Pickering cited a 2011 American Bar Association Task Force Report on Preservation of the Justice System and Related Resolutions, which focused on budgetary cutbacks and the effect on the delivery of judicial services.

The report makes the point that “court budget cuts and the consequent reduction in court services involve direct and indirect costs that far exceed the savings the cuts achieve — that they can be penny-wise and pound-foolish, in other words,” she said.

In response to the report, the American Bar Association adopted resolutions that call in part for state and local governments to establish a stable, predictable and adequate funding system for their courts, Pickering told the lawmakers.

“I am not telling you something new when I say Nevada has been hit hard by the recession,” she said. “Demand for court services does not slacken in hard economic times; it intensifies.

“In recent years, increasing numbers of Nevadans have turned to the courts for help with family relationships ruined by unemployment, foreclosures and substance abuse; with landlord-tenant disputes; and with business disputes made the more urgent by financial need,” Pickering said.

Despite the funding reductions, Nevada’s courts have risen to the challenge, she said.

Pickering cited as an example a telecourt program in Clark County established so mental health court proceedings can be conducted remotely by video link. Two hospitals in the county have virtual courtrooms, allowing the proceeding to take place by audio-visual transmission rather than face-to-face court appearance.

“In many cases, this eliminates the need to transport mental health patients, which can be logistically challenging, costly, and potentially dangerous,” she said.

Nevada’s court spending increased from $48.2 million in fiscal year 2011 to $50.9 million in fiscal year 2012, according to its own annual reports. But much of that can be attributed to the salaries of 10 new District Court judges who took office in January 2011. The 2011 fiscal year saw only six months’ worth of salary and benefits paid to the new judges, while 2012 saw the full 12 months paid.

Pickering also spoke about the need for an intermediate court of appeals to be established in Nevada.

The Senate Finance Committee will take up the issue on Monday when it considers Senate Joint Resolution 14. If the proposal to amend the state constitution passes the Legislature this session, it will go to the voters in 2014. It has been rejected on three previous occasions going back more than 30 years, most recently in 2010.

A recent survey of voters by the Retail Association of Nevada shows support for the court however, by a margin of 48 percent to 42 percent.

Pickering said an intermediate appeals court could be accomplished with minimal cost and would speed up dispositions, not delay them.

“Nevada is at a turning point where voters are starting to realize that we are no longer that little state we all grew up in,” Pickering said. “We have to move into the 21st century, and SJR14 will be a major part of that.”

Contact reporter Sean Whaley at swhaley@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3900.

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