Nevada Bar, jurists push need for appellate court
As the Silver State continues to grow, so do the number of appeal cases sent to the Nevada Supreme Court.
The increasing caseload, to say the least, is weighing heavy with both attorneys and jurists.
Alan Lefebvre, president of the State Bar of Nevada’s Board of Governors, a 15-member body of attorneys representing the state, recently updated the legal community from Churchill and Lyon counties about the increasing number of appeals and what must be done to implement an appellate court.
Lefebvre, along with the Board of Governors, met in Fallon to discuss the need for an appellate court, a measure that Nevada voters defeated in the 2010 election. About 53 percent of Nevada voters rejected the ballot question to create a state intermediate appeals court.
Since that time, though, Lefebvre said the cases appealed to the Nevada’s Supreme Court keep increasing.
“It’s a crushing load on our Supreme Court,” Lefebvre told a crowd of about 50 people.
He said the Nevada Supreme Court justices have the highest per-justice caseloads of any state supreme court in the country, and that the number of cases will grow dramatically. Because of high number of cases appealed to the state’s highest court, Lefebvre said delays have occurred, some cases taking as long as one year or more to be heard.
Nevada is only one of 10 states that does not have an appellate court.
State Supreme Court Judge Jim Hardesty said the Legislature approved the formation for an appellate court twice, but then it’s up to voters to approve or disapprove the addition of an appellate court. Since the Legislature approved the measure in 2011 and 2013, the measure will appear on the November 2014 ballot.
“Voters will decide to amend the state’s constitution as approved by the Legislature,” Hardesty said.
Hardesty said it is important to inform Nevadans why an appellate court is critical to the state.
For example, Lefebvre cited statistics showing that in fiscal year 2012, approximately 2,500 cases were filed, but justices resolved only 2,270 with 1,990 pending cases.
“We have one of the finest court systems in the country, but we have to find a way to prevent delays,” Lefebvre said.
Lefebvre said an appellate court is a good idea for Nevada. As Nevada’s population has grown since statehood, the number of justices has increased from its original three to seven.
The state also has 82 district court judges, 67 justices of the peace and 21 municipal court judges. Lefebvre said the district courts pump out cases and hundreds of final determinations. He added that many cases then filter up for appeal to the Supreme Court.
“The Supreme Court ensures the proper procedures are occurring all over the state … rural and urban,” he said, adding that more criminal than civil cases are being appealed.
Instead, Lefebvre said it would alleviate the higher court’s schedule if Nevada had a three-member appellate court.
Hardesty said statistics show how severe the caseloads have become and the impact the delays are having.
“This election cycle, we have more people helping it such as the state bar and labor groups,” Hardesty pointed out. “The issue affects everybody.”
According to Lefebvre, establishing an appellate court would not require a significant addition to the court’s infrastructure. He said it would be a branch of the Supreme Court and housed in Las Vegas where more than 70 percent of the appeal cases come from; however, Hardesty said the appellate court would also travel to Carson City to hear Northern Nevada appeals.
When asked why can’t the Nevada Supreme Court add three more justices, Lefebvre said the additional number of jurists would create “utter chaos.” With the court then dividing into three separate panels to hear cases, Lefebvre said he is afraid cases would “fall through the cracks.”
“This would be a real disservice to the bar,” Lefebvre explained. “Our bar, our citizens would be better served and to be heard by seven justices. Frankly, it(a larger Supreme Court) would create more management problems than it would resolve.”
Judges serving on the appellate court must possess the same qualifications as a jurists on the Supreme Court, said Hardesty. He said the judges must have similar experiences.
Once the appellate court hears an appeal, Hardesty said the case is done although some cases could go forward to the Supreme Court depending on the circumstances.
Hardesty said a facility is already in place in Las Vegas to accommodate the Court of Appeals; furthermore, Hardesty said the Supreme Court turns back upward to $2 million annually from tis budget, so that money could be used to fund the judges and their staffs, which would be shared with the Supreme Court.
Through careful budgeting, Hardesty said with the returned money, the state would be able to fund a Court of Appeals as long as the system used coexisting buildings, clerks and office staff. Hardesty, a former accountant, estimated the cost to operate a Court of Appeals would be $1.6 million annually.
Judge Tom Stockard, who represent District Court Ten in Fallon, said the volume of cases is staggering.
“The seven justices need to come up with a plan and the Court of Appeals is reasonable at a low cost,” he said.
Stockard added an appellate court would reduce the increasing caseloads and improve the legal access for Nevada’s residents.
Churchill County District Attorney Art Mallory knows how appealed cases jam up the system.
“We have had cases take as long as 18 months to get a decision,” he said. “If it helps to get a decision faster and at very little cost, then this is a good thing.”
Mallory said the number of criminal case loads have been increasing in Churchill County, and because of that, he said appeals are also increasing. For one, he said criminals will appeal because of the verdicts rendered on their cases, and in civil cases, decisions in family law also come out in appeal.
“It’s up to the voters to decide on the Court of Appeals,” Mallory said, who said he prefers the appellate court to adding three justices. “Efficiency will be better addressed by the Court of Appeals than adding the judges.”