ELKO — Since 1910, the Elko County Courthouse has been a visible symbol of justice for residents who drive past it on Idaho Street.
However, in the past couple of years, the courthouse — which is home to the Fourth Judicial District — is beginning to feel the weight of the state’s recently reported population increase which topped more than three million people. And, in some ways, it is about to burst at its seams.
With figures released by the Nevada Supreme Court in its 2018 Annual Report, the Elko Justice Court is experiencing a jump in its caseload, increasing by 54 percent for non-traffic cases that passed through the courts between the fiscal year 2017 and 2018.
“Generally, when discussing how busy a court is, you look at the non-traffic caseload number of the court,” said Justice of the Peace Mason Simons.
Compared with other courts, Elko’s Justice Court is the busiest apart from Clark and Washoe counties, which is something that is being felt even two years after the election of Judge Elias “Choch” Goicoechea to the newly created Department B.
Now with two departments, the judges split the workload, hearing cases both at the courthouse and at the Elko County Jail for in-custody 72-hour hearings, as well as reviewing probable-cause affidavits and being on call to law enforcement seven days a week for search warrant applications.
Between them, they each preside over 2,184 cases. Compared to Carson City’s Justice Court that is also served by two judges, their caseload per judge is higher by 640 cases.
“As caseloads rise, the court is continually adapting to ensure that we address all of the cases that come before the court in the most efficient manner possible,” Simons said.
A typical work week involves several kinds of cases including misdemeanor bench trials; gross misdemeanor and felony preliminary hearings; protection orders; eviction notices; marriages; small claims up to $10,000; and civil actions no more than $15,000.
Out of 11,360 cases that passed through the Elko Justice Court, 6,861 were traffic cases, 1,562 were civil cases, and 519 were reopened cases. About 494 cases were from municipal courts.
Part of the reason for the increase does not stem from just the Elko area, Simons explained. Cases from Carlin, Eastline and Wells are filed at the Elko County District Attorney’s office and then processed through the Elko Justice Court.
“This practice has existed since Thomas Stringfield was the district attorney years ago,” Simons said.
As far as a reason for the uptick in criminal cases, of which the court saw 1,924 in fiscal year 2018, Simons pointed to alcohol- and drug-related crimes as being a large part of the caseload. Defendants appear for cases either related to substance use, being under the influence of substances, or in pursuit of certain substances.
“[T]hese areas would clearly account for the vast majority of criminal cases that we deal with,” he said.
However, such cases are nothing new to the courts, Simons added.
“These have always been issues that the court has dealt with,” he said. “I’m not sure that there has been an increase.”
With the amplified caseload in the justice court, it is easy to predict that it could impact the district courts. Judges Al Kacin and Nancy Porter previously stated their division is in need of a third department and both Simons and Goicoechea said they support an additional judge.
“There are currently four specialty courts being operated by the district courts as well,” Simons said, “which puts significant additional time demands on judges.”
“The need for an additional district court judge is widely recognized in the local legal community,” he continued, with support coming from the Elko County Bar Association, the North Central Judicial Council and the Judicial Council of the State of Nevada.
Support from the Elko Justice Court will also be monetary, Simons added, saying that the justice court will assist the district court with costs to renovate existing facilities for the additional courtroom, chambers and staff.
The increase in the caseload notwithstanding, Simons said the addition of Goicoechea’s Department B is benefiting everyone involved in a case with the ability to process hearings more efficiently “and ensures that all litigants have prompt access to relief through their local courts.”
“As the legal maxim declares,” Simons said, “’justice delayed is justice denied.’”
In 2014, the backers of the proposed constitutional amendment creating a Court of Appeals in part based their arguments for passage on the need to reduce the growing backlog of cases in Nevada’s highest court.
Voters approved the ballot measure, creating the three-member appeals court — but four years later, the combined backlog of pending cases has not only surpassed the number of stalled cases from 2014 but has hit a record high.
According to the Nevada Judiciary’s 2018 report, the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals had a combined backlog of 2,201 pending cases at the end of the 2018 fiscal year, higher than any total reported in the last decade.
In an interview with The Nevada Independent, Supreme Court Justice Mark Gibbons — who will become Chief Justice of the Court in 2019 — acknowledged that the backlog of cases was an impediment to the speedy resolution of trials, but said the increase was not entirely unexpected given certain structural issues including Nevada’s universal right to appeal, the state’s growing population, more cases being filed in district court and a trend of more cases being filed in a successful economy.
But Gibbons said the backlog would likely be even worse had the ballot question failed.
“If we did not have the Court of Appeals approved in 2014, we’d be underwater here today because of the volume of appeals,” he said.
Gibbons said the appeals court, which operates on a “push-down” model where the seven-member Supreme Court initially screens all cases and transfers certain litigation to the appellate court, has been helpful in the sense that it allows the higher court more time to tackle tougher, precedent-setting cases as opposed to routine filings or simpler litigation.
In total, the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals received 2,935 cases in fiscal year 2018 and disposed of 2,695 of them, or 92 percent. But the state’s highest court still had 1,776 pending cases at the end of the fiscal year, and another 425 still pending in the appellate court.
In every year since it was created, the Court of Appeals has been assigned a larger number of cases by the higher court; starting at 500 in fiscal year 2015 and growing to 1,322 in 2018. Its number of pending cases has also grown, from 196 in 2015 to 425 in 2018.
Part of the reason for the jump in pending cases this year has to do with the higher number of appealed cases referred to the court. Cases filed with the court in 2018 totaled more than 2,900, a nearly 20 percent increase from the 2,449 cases filed in 2016.
Gibbons also said that unlike the U.S. Supreme Court and other state Supreme Courts, the Nevada Supreme Court has less leeway in deciding which appeals to take up
“Every case will get a hearing in Nevada, and I’m proud of that, because I think it gives our citizens a better system of justice than other states that pick and choose what they’re going to hear,” he said.
Nationwide, Nevada has gone against the trend of slowing state dockets down. According to a National Center for State Courts study in 2017, state court caseloads nationwide decreased by about 16 percent between 2006 and 2015.
Part of the reason for the backlog is simply the size of the court. Nevada and 28 other states have seven-member Supreme Courts, but among the 41 states with intermediate appellate courts, Nevada has one of the smallest. Only North Dakota and Alaska have the three-member appellate courts, while states of a similar size such as Utah (7) or Mississippi (10) have much larger courts.
Gibbons said it is probably too early to ask lawmakers to expand the size of the appeals court (as allowed under the 2014 change to the Constitution) and wants a few more years of data before making that determination. But he cautioned that any increase in court size would be difficult given inherent difficulties competing for funds in the state budgeting process.
“I anticipate that in the 2021 session, it may be necessary to make that request. But again, part of the things that we have to consider as the judiciary is that the state government has a limited amount of money to spend,” he said. “As the court, we need to stand in line with all the other requests that the Legislature receives for money.”
In the meantime, Gibbons said he planned to push justices and court staff to more rapidly process cases and work down the backlog, predicting it would decrease in 2019.
“I’m going to be a taskmaster, a deadline driver, haranguing people to get their work in on time, and sometimes they don’t like it, but that’s how I do business,” he said. “That’s how this year is going to go to make sure we get the best product out as quickly as possible and we get the volume out to reduce the backlog and meet our quotas.”
“If we did not have the Court of Appeals approved in 2014, we’d be underwater here today because of the volume of appeals.”
LAS VEGAS (AP) — Tax-free feminine hygiene products and an overhaul of state campaign finance rules are among the changes Nevada will see in 2019 as new laws take effect. Nevada’s last legislative session was in 2017, and most of the laws passed took effect in 2017 or on Jan. 1, 2018. Only a handful of other measures take effect Tuesday:
Nevada voters in November opted to exempt feminine hygiene products from sales and use tax until at least 2028. Proponents of removing the so-called pink tax argued that feminine hygiene products should be treated like groceries, prescription drugs and other necessities that aren’t subject to tax. According to state estimates, eliminating the tax on tampons and sanitary napkins is estimated to cost Nevada between about $5 million to $7 million annually.
A new law expands the restoration of voting rights for some of those who have served time for crimes.
Nevada felons have been able to get their voting rights back if they complete their sentence, fulfill the terms of their probation or parole and paid all restitution or proven they can’t pay restitution because of an economic hardship.
Under the new law, those who were dishonorably discharged from probation or parole, meaning they didn’t pay full restitution or otherwise didn’t fulfill the terms, also get their voting rights back.
The measure also allows voting rights to be restored after two years for those who were convicted of lower-level felonies such as robbery if the person completes their probation or parole and the crime did not result in “substantial bodily harm” to a victim.
A broad campaign finance law retooling a number of state reporting requirements takes effect Tuesday.
The changes require candidates and political action committees to offer more information about their campaign fundraising and spending, including reporting their cash on hand at the end of a reporting period.
It also requires more transparency about campaign expenses made with a credit card. Candidates and PACs will no longer be able to lump credit card expenses together on their reports as one expense made to pay off a credit card bill. Instead, they will have to disclose the business or entity that was paid with the card.
ELKO — The progress and findings of Humboldt River Basin water modeling studies will be the focus of three technical workshops in Northern Nevada in January.
The Nevada Division of Water Resources plans to host a workshop at 9:30 a.m., Jan. 16, at the Elko County Library, 720 Court St. Workshops are also scheduled for Jan. 15 in Lovelock and Winnemucca.
Studies are in response to concerns that groundwater pumping has gradually depleted water in the Humboldt River Basin and less water makes it to senior surface water right holders downstream, said Adam Sullivan, deputy state engineer with the Nevada Division of Water Resources.
The Pershing County Water Conservation District filed a writ petition in 2015, amended in 2016, requesting that the state curtail water in over-appropriated basins. The litigation is ongoing.
Now in their third year, the studies are being conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and Desert Research Institute.
“Model results will be used to inform any conjunctive management proposals in the future,” Sullivan said.