Friday, March 22, 2013 | 2:02 a.m.
Article 6 of the Nevada Constitution currently provides for one appellate court — the Supreme Court. Every single appeal from decisions rendered by Nevada’s 82 District Courts must be reviewed by the Supreme Court. This two-tier court structure has resulted in a staggering caseload for the Nevada Supreme Court, and the delay of justice — sometimes by years — for Nevada citizens.
An appellate court, commonly called an appeals court or a court of appeals, is a court empowered to hear an appeal of a trial court or other lower court. In most states, the court system is divided into at least three levels: the trial court, which initially hears cases and reviews evidence and testimony to determine the facts of the case; at least one intermediate appellate court; and a Supreme Court (or court of last resort), which primarily reviews the decisions of the intermediate appellate courts. Forty of the 50 states have an intermediate appellate court. The 10 states that do not are Delaware, Maine, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming.
The Nevada Supreme Court has a crushing caseload, one of the heaviest in the nation. Seven justices have handled more than 2,250 cases in each of the past three years. To fully appreciate the burden of this caseload, consider a report published by the National Center for State Courts titled, “Court Statistics Project, 2012.” This report concludes that of the 10 states with no intermediate appellate court, Nevada has the highest number of incoming cases at 2,288. When considering the number of incoming cases per 100,000 total population, West Virginia is first with 90 cases per 100,000, Delaware is second with 86 cases and Nevada is third with 85 cases.
Comparing the caseload in Nevada’s Supreme Court (85 per 100,000 people) with the caseloads of the 40 states with one or more intermediate appellate courts, 17 of the states have a higher caseload per 100,000 (ranging from 86 cases to 234 cases) and 22 states have a lower caseload per 100,000 (ranging from 31 cases to 84 cases).
The number of cases each justice individually handles is likewise staggering. The American Bar Association’s suggested caseload for an appellate judge is 100 cases. In fiscal year 2011-12, the average caseload per justice of the Nevada Supreme Court was 357 cases. This large caseload means Nevada justices have less time to carefully consider and write opinions, which clarify state law and thereby benefit the public. Based on the Court Statistics Project report concerning court opinions, of the reporting states with no appellate court, Nevada had the highest decided dispositions at 1,679 and the lowest number of opinions per judge at nine.
The bar association’s standard for the review and resolution of appellate cases is one year. Based on data from the Nevada Supreme Court, for calendar year 2012, the court will resolve approximately 73 percent of the cases within the one-year standard. With the current caseload of 2,500 appeals, the Nevada Supreme Court would have to dispose of nearly seven cases each calendar day to meet the association’s time standards. Senate Joint Resolution 14, which is pending before the 2013 Legislature, proposes to amend the Nevada Constitution to create a court of appeals, which would be composed of three judges. Based on the business plan submitted by Nevada’s Supreme Court, the cost for the court would be approximately $1.5 million annually to cover the salaries of judges and staff. There would be no facility costs because the new court would reside in the Regional Justice Center in Las Vegas within existing Nevada Supreme Court space.
The new court would work under a “push down” model. Using this model, all appeals would be filed in the Supreme Court, which would assign certain types of cases to the court of appeals. The type of cases that would fall under the court of appeals currently comprise the largest portion of the appeals filed in the Nevada Supreme Court. This system would provide for a speedy disposition of typical case types, such as divorces, personal injury claims and foreclosures. In addition, this system would provide the Supreme Court with cases calling for greater review, including cases presenting constitutional issues, and development of opinions. This process would provide for greater and most efficient access to justice for Nevada’s citizens.
Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. Mark Hutchison, R-Las Vegas, is a member of the committee. Both are attorneys.