The Senate Finance Committee was told Wednesday the state should help White Pine County build a new courthouse because the dangers at the existing building are the state's fault.
District Judge Dan Papez, of Ely, said the problem is trials and hearings involving inmates from Ely State Prison, Nevada's maximum security prison. He said highly dangerous inmate defendants and witnesses must be brought to court for proceedings and are in close proximity not only to each other but to the jurors, witnesses and judges.
Witnesses, lawyers and judges must pass the holding cells for inmates to get to the bathroom. The holding cells have been described as nothing more than cages and the witness seat is just three feet from the jury box.
He said the situation was made worse by a recent Nevada Supreme Court ruling that says inmates who are witnesses should not be in prison garb or shackled when they appear in court.
Sen. Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, said the court might reconsider that decision if "we recruit the justices of the Supreme Court to serve on a jury in Ely."
Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Maupin declined to comment on the remark.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, said he agrees the state caused the need for a new courthouse.
"The reason this courthouse has a problem is not the ordinary course of business in White Pine County," he said. "It's because we put this prison in White Pine County."
Steve Robinson, representing Gov. Jim Gibbons, told Senate Finance Committee the governor "agrees this is a public safety issue and also a state responsibility."
But, he said, the governor only recommended $6.5 million for the project in his budget.
SB333 would appropriate the entire $14 million needed to construct a new courthouse in Ely.
"I can't believe that White Pine County's fiscal situation has improved to the point where they can complete the funding," Raggio said.
He was joined by Minority Leader Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, who said she is "not too optimistic about White Pine being able to pay part of this."
The county's financial affairs are being managed by the Nevada Department of Taxation because it was judged on the brink of bankruptcy two years ago.
Papez said the county may be able to help with the project if another bill, SB74, passes. That legislation would allow a county to raise sales taxes a quarter cent for projects such as the courthouse. He said it would generate about $350,000 a year in White Pine.
Ely Warden E.K. McDaniel told the committee because of the lack of space and controls over inmates at the courthouse, he needs seven guards in the courtroom every time an inmate defendant or witness is there. And without shackles, he said, the courtroom's large windows could give an inmate the chance to escape.
"We have the worst of the worst at Ely State Prison," he said.
The committee took no action on the bill.
• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at email@example.com or 687-8750.