Nevada Supreme Court ruling has some lower courts scrambling |

Nevada Supreme Court ruling has some lower courts scrambling

Nevada State Supreme Court building in Carson City.
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The Nevada Supreme Court opinion saying domestic battery defendants have the right to a jury trial has left justice courts around the state struggling to figure out just how to implement the order.

The high court ruled unanimously in September that changes to the domestic battery law in 2015 elevated the crime from a “petty” offense to a “serious” offense. In petty offense cases, it’s up to the judge whether to allow a jury trial and it almost never happens.

But now, the defendant in a domestic violence case can demand a jury.

Justice of the Peaces and court administrators from several jurisdictions made it clear in interviews the big problem is they just don’t know what the impact will be. The biggest question is how many defendants will actually demand a jury trial. A total of nine Carson defendants had already sought a jury as of this past week although a couple of those cases have already settled.

“You have no control over how cases are charged or the arrests that are made,” said Anita (Pete) Whitehead, Sparks Justice Court administrator.

More than one of those interviewed said that means they basically have to plan as if every domestic battery defendant will demand a jury.

Reno Justice Court assistant administrator Louella Mansfield said Washoe has already had several jury demands but that she has hopes that at least half the defendants will settle.

Pershing County JP Karen Stephens echoed the thoughts of nearly everyone interviewed that the problem in planning for this is that nobody has a real idea how many jury trials they’ll actually see.

She said her courtroom in the basement of the 100-year-old Lovelock courthouse is far too small to host a jury trial so they would have to use the district court courtroom.

Like Stephens, Stephen Bishop said his White Pine County courtroom in Ely is too small. Both, however, said they have very good relations with their district judge and that they’ll work it out.

“The sky is not falling,” said Bishop. “My staff is good.”

The first issue the new rule raises is simply a matter of space. Most justice of the peace courtrooms are far too small for a jury trial. Most don’t even have a jury box. Even those that do have adequate court facilities lack a room for jurors to deliberate.

And most of them at this point don’t have a case management system set up to qualify and subpoena jurors. Carson City may be the lone exception since their system does include limited jurisdiction courts.

Second, in all but two Nevada counties, JPs don’t have to be a lawyer and most of those lay judges have zero experience with the rules for jury trials.

Stephens, for example, has experience on the bench but isn’t an attorney.

“It’s a whole new ballgame,” she said. “A jury trial is far different from a bench trial.”

“The day I read that order, I’m not going to lie, I panicked,” said Camille Vecchiarelli, JP in Lyon County’s Dayton court. She isn’t a lawyer either. But she has 30 years experience in the courthouse and 10 years on the bench. She also has some past experience with jury trials.

Third, it’s going to cost money those JP courts don’t have budgeted at this point — money for added staff, to handle and summon jurors to court and pay them for service. It will also cost time and money to train justices of the peace and their staffs to handle jury trials.

Vecchiarelli said her courthouse was built in 1990 and does have space and a jury box. But she said there is no place for jurors to deliberate so the court will require some remodeling and that she thinks the other two JP courtrooms in Yerington and Fernley also have space for juries.

She said the county is being very helpful as are Lyon’s district judges who have said they will help with training the three JPs who are all lay judges.

“I don’t think we’re going to struggle as much as other jurisdictions,” said JP Kristin Luis of Carson City. JP Tom Armstrong agreed, pointing to the third courtroom on the third floor currently used for specialty court hearings. In addition, he pointed out that, as veteran lawyers, they both have experience with jury trials.

“There’s going to be some learning curve here and I can’t sit here in total confidence and say the first jury trial will go off without a hitch,” Armstrong said.

Washoe County justice courts also have space with two of their courtrooms already fitted out for jury trials. But Mansfield and Whitehead said if a lot of defendants demand a jury, that wouldn’t be enough since, between Reno and Sparks, there were more than 750 cases filed so far this year with domestic violence charges.

Washoe also has JP courts in Incline Village and Wadsworth but without room for jury trials those cases would have to transfer to Reno/Sparks.

Mansfield said current law doesn’t require the district court to manage juries for the justice courts. So, she and Whitehead both said Washoe’s caseload is large enough that, unless something can be worked out to have one jury commissioner manage all cases, they’ll have to buy their own case management system. Whitehead said the only price they’ve heard so far is $88,000 for the initial system and about $9,300 a year in licensing fees.

She said in small jurisdictions, the district court would probably be able to help with case management and managing juries.

In Carson, JP courts administrator Maxine Cortes said they have already begun cross training of staff to handle jury trials.

Armstrong said one of the things he’s concerned about is the impact on the public. Mansfield and Whitehead raised the same concern, pointing out that jurors who in the past maybe received one summons a year to district court could now receive one each year for district, JP and municipal courts in their county

All those interviewed, said it will take about six months to determine the actual impact of the new rule.