Creation of Nevada Appeals Court Finally Approved in 2014: The Road So Far

In a historic 53.78%–46.22% decision, which is already beginning to transform the state's judiciary in significant ways, Nevada voters elected to create an Intermediate Court of Appeals during the November 2014 election cycle. The result signaled a change on an issue that had proved intractable over the last five years. The passage of a Senate Joint Resolution in two consecutive state biennial legislative sessions, followed by a statewide voter campaign by current Nevada Supreme Justice James Hardesty in partnership with a statewide coalition of legal, business, political, and community leaders, helped pave the way for approval of the court.

Since the 1970s, Nevada voters have consistently voted against the creation of an Intermediate Court of Appeals for the state, doing so four times, forcing appeals directly to the Supreme Court. A Court of Appeals, situated between the District Courts—comprised of 82 judges—and the State Supreme Court—made up of 7 judges—allows for appeals of cases at the District Court level to proceed forward and be heard in a timely fashion without burdening the existing workload of the Supreme Court.

Before passage of Question No. 1 on the ballot this year, the Nevada judiciary was facing a number of mounting challenges:

  • Fifty-six percent of all appeals take more than six months to be heard, with 29% taking more than one year.
  • The Nevada Supreme Court hears every case that is appealed from the lower courts, including driver's license revocation appeals and prisoner food complaints.
  • The Nevada Supreme Court justices have the highest per-justice caseloads (357) of any State Supreme Court in the United States. (See page 6 of this Power Point).
  • In 2012 alone, 2,500 cases were filed with the Supreme Court, leaving 1,900 cases pending and creating a massive backlog that accumulates year over year.
  • Child custody cases often take up to four years to resolve because of the overwhelming backlog.
  • Growing economic development concerns are linked to the inability of the judicial system to resolve corporate litigation in a timely manner.
  • Without passage of the 2014 Ballot Question 1, the volume in the current system would continue to accelerate.

One issue that proponents of the new appellate court were able to successfully navigate this time was the state's culture of small government and 'less is more.' This prevailing thought has previously hurt the idea of creating another court. The latest effort created a cost-neutral plan, utilizing existing building infrastructure and operating funds that came from moneys the Supreme Court returned to the State general fund from their own budget each biennium. A three-judge court would be created and, using a push-down model, 700 select cases would be assigned to the Court of Appeals, therefore not requiring a new court clerk or central legal staff. There would also be no added judicial bureaucracy, with the Writ of Certiorari review only to the Supreme Court. This approach achieved a balance between the need for the additional court and the continued efficiency of government so ever-present in the culture of Nevada.

As an Advisor to IAALS' Quality Judges Initiative, I work with the other members of the O'Connor Advisory Committee to inform citizens, public officials, private sector leaders, and our own colleagues in the judiciary about the critical and invaluable importance of access to a fair, accessible, and high-quality judge for every citizen and for every case. Nevada has demonstrated that, with right mindedness and well-placed determination on behalf of achieving a high-functioning and efficient legal system, change and progress will eventually prevail.