Chief Justice Hardesty says Nevada must fix the pandemic backlog of jury trials

Nevada Supreme Court Justice Jim Hardesty.

Nevada Supreme Court Justice Jim Hardesty.

Nevada Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Hardesty told a combined session of the Senate and Assembly on Thursday that it is critical Nevada restart jury trials in the state.

Hardesty said the pandemic has effectively all but cancelled jury trials. In Clark County alone, he said, there are 252 capital murder cases scheduled for trial this year. He said 182 defendants in Clark have invoked their right to a speedy trial within 60 days. Failure to do so, could result in dismissal of those cases.

Through February of this year, there were just five criminal and one civil jury trial in Clark and just three jury trials in Washoe County.

He said courtrooms and jury trials were shut down because it became too dangerous to have everyone including a jury sitting in the same courtrooms.

At the same time, he said shifting to remote proceedings when possible may end up being one of the ultimate benefits of the pandemic since as many more hearings are now being held much more efficiently by Zoom and other electronic platforms.

But, he said, that doesn’t apply to jury trials.

“The right to a jury trial is fundamental to our democracy,” Hardesty said.  “The pandemic has delayed that right and we need to fix it now.”

He urged lawmakers to consider using some of the latest stimulus money in the American Rescue Plan to restore justice in Nevada and enable courts to restart jury trials.

He also called for funding to the Administrative Office of the Courts to build an electronic filing system for every court in Nevada.

Hardesty told lawmakers that many courtrooms in the state are not capable of social distancing and other pandemic measures to prevent virus spread. They simply don’t have the room. He said that problem exists not only in the rurals but Clark and Washoe counties as well.

In addition to major cases, he said domestic battery cases are now backing up since they have been ruled as requiring a jury trial if the defendant demands one.

Using Elko as an example, Hardesty said six jury trials have been held, one in the Stockman’s Casino and one in the county commission chambers.

“I’m expecting to hear any day the next trial will be held in a barn outside the city,” he said.

He said restarting jury trials statewide is the judicial branch’s highest priority and he has asked courts across the state to submit plans for more venues and more retrofits of courtrooms as well as upgrade air handling systems in courtrooms statewide.

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