The Annual Report of the Nevada Judiciary issued this week says in just its first six months, the newly created intermediate Appeals Court has made a significant difference.
The 52 page report says in the fiscal year ending June 30, the backlog of cases pending before the Supreme Court fell from 1,985 to 1,543.
“The decrease in the Supreme Court’s pending caseload was due in large part to the 500 cases transferred to the state’s newly-formed three-judge Court of Appeals,” said Chief Justice Jim Hardesty in the report.
Of those transferred cases, the annual report says the Appeals Court resolved 304, leaving 196 cases pending there as of June 30.
That’s a total pending caseload between the two courts of 1,739 cases — a net reduction in the backlog of 246 cases.
Pointing out that’s in just the Appeals Court’s first six months of operation, Hardesty said he expects the backlog will continue to decrease next year and beyond.
Creation of the Court of Appeals was approved by voters in November 2014. The three initial judges, Chief Judge Michael Gibbons, and Judges Abbi Silver and Jerome Tao, were named and started work in January. They ruled on their first case just a couple of weeks later, upholding a district court jury verdict and sentence in an attempted murder case.
The way the system works, all appeals are still filed with the Supreme Court which, then, refers some cases down to the Court of Appeals. Hardesty said during the push to have voters approve the intermediate court the high court would then have more time to focus on constitutional issues and precedent setting cases as well as more time to write authored opinions on those weighty issues. The number of authored opinions, however, didn’t increase. Instead, that number fell from 105 in 2014 to 87 in 2015, according to the report.
The Court of Appeals, however, wasn’t the only issue raised in the annual report.
Specialty Court programs were expanded significantly in fiscal 2015, fueled by a $3 million annual appropriation from the Nevada Legislature. Specialty courts divert defendants in the criminal system to participate in long-term counseling and other programs designed to cure underlying problems such as drug abuse and prevent recidivism. Nevada now has specialty courts dealing with issues including felony DUI, veterans’ issues, family dependency, juvenile crime, mental health, drug and alcohol addiction, child support and prostitution prevention. The First Judicial District in Carson City operates drug court for both adults and juveniles, mental health and felony DUI court.
Experts say every dollar invested in specialty courts results in up to $27 in savings to the justice system, law enforcement and society.
Potentially one of the most significant court programs begun in 2015 was the study to reform the bail system by creating a pretrial risk assessment tool.
There have been growing concerns about the existing bail system in many states including Nevada.
“The focus comes after federal cases questioned the use of bail based on financial conditions,” according to the report.
The existing rules differ in every jurisdiction and, the report says, too often require judges to make a “seat of your pants” decision on who gets out before trial or to set bail for an accused who too often can’t afford it.
The committee is charged with developing an evidence based risk assessment tool to help make those decisions.
“Knowing the risk of an accused subject will allow judges to make a sound decision based on the risk rather than the ability to pay,” Hardesty said.
The report is available on the Supreme Court website at nvcourts.gov.