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.’”