Vote ‘Yes’ on appeals court

The first question on November’s ballot may also be its least understood. But it has the potential to affect everybody in the state in ways they might not even realize.

Question 1 asks voters to create an intermediate appellate court, a three-judge panel that would hear some cases and give the seven justices of the Nevada Supreme Court time to focus on more complex controversies that may result in precedent-setting opinions.

Last week, at the Review-Journal’s monthly Hashtags &Headlines luncheon at Texas Station, a panel of experts explained why the intermediate appellate court was necessary, and even essential, to the judicial branch in Nevada. Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty, former Justice William Maupin (now a shareholder at Lionel, Sawyer &Collins), Boyd Law School Dean Daniel Hamilton and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto all agreed, it’s time for Nevada to follow 40 other states in the union and establish an intermediate appellate court.

The discussion was in-depth, but here’s a summary of the most salient points:

Need: Nevada’s Supreme Court has one of the highest caseloads per justice in the nation. The American Bar Association suggests an average of 100 cases per justice per year; in fiscal year 2013, Nevada’s Supreme Court justices faced 333 cases per justice, on average.

Part of the reason? Our high court must hear all appeals in the state, from the most complex death penalty case all the way down to appeals of driver’s license revocations, and everything in between. An appeals court would allow Supreme Court justices to focus their attention where it is most needed.

Cost: Initially, the cost is estimated at $1.5 million. The new justices would work in existing facilities, and existing Supreme Court staff would do most of the behind-the-scenes work of sorting and classifying cases. The cost may rise in the future, if the Legislature adds more justices to the court of appeals, but initially, an intermediate appellate court couldn’t get much cheaper.

Alternatives: The Nevada Supreme Court was expanded in 1999, from five to seven justices, but Hardesty and Maupin said further expansion likely wouldn’t produce more efficiencies. Justices now sit in panels to hear many cases. And the court has implemented all the technological, procedural and technical efficiencies it can to effectively deal with cases.

Results: Hardesty said the Supreme Court would inevitably produce more written opinions, once its calendar was freed from dealing with many of the routine cases that justices are now required to hear. This is important, because precedent-setting opinions can guide District Courts in applying the law to similar cases that arise in the future, which cuts down on the number of appeals.

What does it mean to you? The average person who has never sued anybody or been sued probably never enters the courthouse, except to serve on a jury. But decisions made there could have a huge effect on your life. Whether it’s how a custody dispute is handled in Family Court, or how a law affecting a business is enforced, it all ultimately is decided in court.

The difference is, an intermediate court of appeals can cut down on the time — sometimes years — from when a dispute first occurs to when it’s resolved. With more routine cases off its docket, the Supreme Court can turn its attention to bigger controversies. If you’re involved in a dispute, you can get a resolution more quickly. And people involved in similar disputes in the future will know exactly how the law is to be interpreted, since the court is able to issue more binding opinions.

Voters have rejected the court of appeals four times in the past 40 years, most recently in 2010. But as the population increases, so do legal disputes. The problem of crowded court dockets isn’t going away anytime soon. For a relatively small cost, we can start to fix this problem now.

Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist who blogs at SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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