The November 2014 ballot will contain a proposal to amend the Nevada Constitution and create a court of appeals (appellate court). Those of you who have been reading my columns awhile know that 99 percent of the time I’m a passionate supporter of smaller government. However, this is one case where adding a layer of government actually makes sense.
Currently, any case that’s appealed in District Court automatically goes to the Nevada Supreme Court, even if it’s a trivial matter. In fiscal year 2012, a total of 2,500 appeals were filed, giving the Supreme Court justices the highest per-justice caseload in the U.S., about 365 cases per justice per year. The result is that 56 percent of all appeals now take more than six months to be heard, 29 percent take more than a year and some take much longer. Staying in a holding pattern while waiting for a decision can prevent a business owner from making any long-term plans, proceeding with important projects or getting funds from a financial institution.
A business owner considering a particular course of action also needs to be sure that what he’s planning is legal and won’t land him in an expensive court case. One important duty of the Supreme Court that is often overlooked is issuing written opinions to serve as precedents for other court cases. Because the justices have been so overwhelmed, they issue fewer than 90 written dispositions a year. Consider how quickly things change every day — the economy, technology, the business climate, federal regulations — and it’s easy to see that Nevada needs a legal infrastructure robust enough to support its business activities.
Another thing to consider is that Nevada has been trying for many years to promote itself, not only as a business-friendly state, but also as a good state in which to incorporate. Companies interested in moving here or setting up shop in Nevada need to know that any business disputes can be resolved quickly, and that we have the court structure to back up our business community.
During the last legislative session, a Senate Joint Resolution (SJR 14) proposed establishing a three-judge appellate court as a solution to these problems. Appeals from the District Court would be filed with the Supreme Court as they are now, but then they would be screened, with only the most important cases remaining with the highest court. The others would be “pushed down” to the Court of Appeals for faster resolution. It’s estimated the new court could handle about 700 cases a year, helping ease the Supreme Court’s caseload.
As a taxpayer, I always want to know what any government proposal will cost, and in this case, the cost should be minimal. If the voters approve the ballot question, three new judges would be appointed to serve on the appellate court. They could use existing office and courtroom space, and would not require a court clerk or central legal staff. SJR14 estimates the cost for the first two-year period at about $1.5 million, mainly for the salaries of the judges and their staff. Due to cost-cutting measures, the Court has been returning about $1 million a fiscal year to the state’s general fund, so most of the money to support the new court could come from reducing costs elsewhere in the Supreme Court’s budget.
SJR 14 passed the Legislature unanimously, and lawmakers who are also attorneys have formed a Political Action Committee (PAC) to enlist support within the legal community and the general public. I urge you to discuss this proposal with your attorney and throw your support behind it.
PowerPoint presentation “The Need for a Court of Appeals” prepared for the Legislature by Chief Justice Kristina Pickering and Justice James Hardesty:
Complete draft of Senate Joint Resolution 14: