Las Vegas Sun

October 30, 2014

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Nevada judges do well when cases are reviewed Nevada

Nevada's Supreme Court overturned District Court judges 99 times over a 32-month period, according to a recent study.

Forty-three of Nevada's 60 District Court judges were overturned at least once between January 2003 and last August, a period studied by a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign journalism class.

The investigative reporting class examined state court rulings across the United States to determine how many judges were overturned.

The study, overseen by professor William Gaines, a former Chicago Tribune reporter, found that Nevada judges as a group were on the low end of the scale, with the reversal rate at 1.65 per judge. Some states ran as high as 5.6, Gaines said.

District Judge Nancy Saitta, who is considering a run for state Supreme Court, had the most reversals in the state during that period: seven.

Current Supreme Court Justice Michael Douglas, who was appointed to the court in April 2004, had six and District Judge Valorie Vega had four. All three are from Clark County.

The reversals of Nevada's judges paled in comparison to other judges in the country. Juvenile Court Judge James Doerty of King County, Wash., had 39 reversals.

Douglas acknowledged that having a decision reversed is not something any judge wants to happen, but mused "only a few judges do have the rare gift of the perfect memory of the law needed to have a perfect record."

"There are a few judges out there with a photographic memory, and they have the film to go with it," Douglas said. "There are a number of us out there, however, with the photographic memory, but we don't have the film."

Judges say reversals can be an offspring of high caseloads or working both civil and criminal calendars, which requires a judge to handle a wide variety of cases instead of building a specialty.

In Clark County, judges handle on average 2,600 cases a year, the highest among neighboring states.

Gaines said he has received calls from several judges complaining that heavy caseloads often prevent them from dedicating adequate time to all of their rulings.

But in Gaines' mind the excuse of having too many cases doesn't fly.

"I have absolutely no sympathy for that argument," Gaines said. "If it's such a problem they should get off the bench. I mean just imagine if a medical doctor is facing a malpractice claim and their excuse is, 'I just had too many patients that day.' Would anyone buy that?"

Douglas said also missing was the reason for the reversals, which could be a legal error or the judge making the wrong interpretation. He said in many cases judges are reversed when an appellate court simply decides the time is right to change the law.

Saitta said none of the reversals covered in the study of cases handled by Douglas, Vega and her dealt with any egregious error on their part.

Douglas said although judges make mistakes they shouldn't let that stop them from exercising their judgment in an expeditious manner.

"If every time you had to make a decision on a motion or issue in a case and you paused the trial and took in under submission, it would delay the resolution of the case and impede justice," Douglas said.

Vega said although she certainly doesn't like being reversed, it's important for all judges to learn from their mistakes. Vega said that because Nevada law is "young as compared with the states on the East Coast, we as judges are setting the precedent for future generations."

"The flip side to this excitement, however, is we don't have a great deal of precedent to follow," Vega said. "This often leaves us to make rulings and interpret issues that haven't been dealt with previously, which leaves many of our rulings open for reversal."

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