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New panel would improve case law, speed resolution

With the unanimous approval of the Nevada Legislature, Nevadans will consider Question 1 on the November ballot.

The measure improves access to justice, shortens the time to disposition of appellate cases and increases the number of published opinions through the creation of a Court of Appeals that will operate at a minimal cost to the taxpayers.

Nevada’s Supreme Court has been overburdened for decades as it struggles to provide the public with timely resolution of cases in the face of an ever-growing population. The increasing backlog of appeals is delaying justice in Nevada and, as a consequence, justice is being denied in the Silver State. This delay hurts Nevada’s citizens and businesses alike, as it takes longer and longer to resolve cases before the Nevada Supreme Court. According to a 2012 study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, more than 70 percent of legal counsel and senior executives surveyed said the quality of the state’s judicial system is an important factor in the ultimate decision of where to locate and do business.

Nevada is one of only 10 states lacking a separate court of appeals, and of those 10 states, it has the largest population. The lack of a court of appeals means the Nevada Supreme Court must decide all appeals, including those involving driver’s license revocations and inmate disputes over the quality of their food or clothing. In 2013, there were 2,333 new appeals filed, which comes on top of the backlog from prior years. These filings produce the highest annual caseload per justice — 333 — of any state supreme court in the nation. Just to keep pace with the filings, each of the seven justices must resolve those 333 cases, almost one per day, in order to avoid further backlog. That rate of disposition is neither wise nor practical.

As a result of this heavy caseload, the Supreme Court is forced to resolve most appeals through unpublished orders that bind only the parties in a single case, instead of published opinions that establish statewide precedent for all future cases. In recent years, the Supreme Court has issued published opinions in only 3 percent to 4 percent of all cases. The lack of published opinions can lead to the same issues being litigated repeatedly. Although our Supreme Court has tried to manage and reduce its caseload through technological and procedural measures, more needs to be done to make our justice system work better for our citizens and businesses.

Question 1 would create a Court of Appeals to handle some of the cases currently decided by the Supreme Court. The court would function under a “push down” or transfer system, similar to that used in Iowa, Idaho and Mississippi, where all appeals would still be filed with the Supreme Court, but certain types of cases would then be pushed down to the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court would establish the types of District Court decisions to be heard by the Court of Appeals and also would determine when a Court of Appeals decision may be reviewed by the Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals would consist of three judges, initially appointed by the governor and thereafter elected to six-year terms at the general election.

Adding a Court of Appeals would have minimal fiscal impact on Nevada. The Court of Appeals would be housed in existing courtrooms and offices in Northern and Southern Nevada, which avoids the need for any capital costs. Additionally, because all appeals would still be filed with the clerk of the Supreme Court, there would be no added clerks, central staff or bureaucracy. The operating cost is limited to the salaries for judges and staff, which the 2013 Legislature has already approved, subject only to passage of Question 1. And the operating costs are mitigated by reversions, or returns to the state general fund, from the Supreme Court.

Most importantly, a Court of Appeals would provide more timely access to justice for Nevadans, quicker resolution of all cases and an increase in the number of published opinions in all areas of Nevada law, which would provide much needed legal clarity for our citizens and businesses.

I hope you will join the many Nevadans supporting the Court of Appeals this year, and I invite you to review the campaign’s website at www.nvcourtofappeals.com for additional information.

Please vote yes on Question 1.

James W. Hardesty is a Nevada Supreme Court justice.

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