Nevada Supreme Court could eventually shrink
April 15, 2015
May be down to five members in 2019
If the plain language of current statute is followed, the Nevada Supreme Court is going to shrink from seven members to five in the November 2018 election.
That's because NRS2.010 says the high court must be reduced if and when an Intermediate Appellate Court is approved by the voters.
Nevada voters did just that last November. An appellate court consisting of three justices has been named and is now hearing cases.
Chief Justice Jim Hardesty is going to address lawmakers tonight on the state of the judicial branch — including a report on how the appellate court is doing.
At present, there are seven justices on the high court. But NRS2.010 says after voters establish an intermediate appellate court, "the supreme court shall consist of a chief justice and four associate justices."
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The language was inserted into state law in 1997 in trade for expanding the court from five to seven justices and authorizing them to hear cases in three-justice panels. Lawmakers reasoned at the time that, if an appellate court was in place, the high court could operate efficiently with just five members.
"Section 9 of the bill makes clear the seats would sunset January 2019," said Hardesty.
But he said the court has not submitted legislation to change that law.
"Whether or if the Legislature sees fit, modifying that is a policy decision theirs to make," Hardesty said.
AB343 was approved by the Senate Finance Committee on July 4, 1997, and included language stating the two added justices and the panels expire when the appellate court opens for business.
According to the bill history: "The additional justices whose positions are abolished by the creation of such an intermediate appellate court must be permitted to serve the remainder of their terms in office, but the positions of the additional justices and any positions of staff hired directly to support them must be abolished at the end of those terms."
Nancy Saitta and Mark Douglas would serve out their six-year terms but their seats would be eliminated Jan. 1, 2019.
Approval of the appellate court also eliminates the system of three-judge panels the Supreme Court has been using to expedite hearings on the majority of cases.
The sunset provision was actually suggested by Justice Cliff Young in 1997. The language was inserted during the Assembly Ways and Means hearing on the bill.
Hardesty conceded reducing the size of the Supreme Court could slow the court's ability to process the backlog of cases.
"One would think that would be part of the decision," he said.
He noted since the language was approved 18 years ago the number of cases filed with the Supreme Court has increased.
Statistics for Fiscal 1997 were not readily available but the numbers on the high court's website show in FY2000, the earliest year available, there were 1,940 cases filed and 1,932 disposed of.
FY2014, the annual report says, saw 2,481 cases filed and 1,988 disposed of. That's a 541 case increase but just 46 more disposed of.
Court records indicate there was a backlog of 1,988 cases pending at the end of Fiscal 2014.
The number of authored opinions, however, remained pretty much the same — 106 in 2000 to 105 in 2014.
Hardesty said it's up to the Legislature either this year or in 2017 to decide whether the growing workload warrants removal of the sunset.
"All I can say is we would have less appellate judges working on cases," Hardesty said.