You may have heard about an initiative that will be on the ballot on November 4, 2014 to create a Nevada Court of Appeals. The initiative is called Nevada Creation of a State Intermediate Appellate Court, and commonly referred to as SJR 14 is a legislatively-referred constitutional amendment to create a Nevada State Court of Appeals. Establishing a Nevada Court of Appeals will benefit Nevada because it will relieve the crushing case load in the Nevada State Supreme Court for relatively low cost. Reducing caseloads will provide for quicker resolution of cases and allow the Supreme Court to focus on cases of first impression and other high-level matters. Moreover, a mature court system will attract businesses to Nevada that currently fear the ambiguous state of the law in Nevada.
Currently, the Nevada State Constitution requires that all appeals from the state trial courts be appealed to the Nevada State Supreme Court. Most other states have an intermediate appeals court. In other states the intermediate court reviews routine appeals which allows the State Supreme Court to focus on cases of first impression, cases involving public policy and death penalty cases. Nevada is one of 11 states without an intermediate court of appeals. Consequently, the State Supreme Court is required to review all types of appeals which results in a crushing caseload. In order to change this model, the Nevada State constitution must be amended to allow for an intermediate court of appeals. In order for a legislatively-referred constitutional amendment to succeed it must first be passed by the Nevada House and Senate in two consecutive legislative sessions. SJR 14 passed in both houses in 2011 and 2013. Second, the voters then must also pass the amendment which is why SJR 14 is on the ballot this year.
Nevada’s Supreme Court has one of the highest caseloads per judge in the nation with seven justices addressing more than 2,220 matters annually. The American Bar Association recommends that all appeal cases be resolved within one year. In Nevada, due to the volume of matters, only 73% are resolved in the one-year time frame. Moreover, almost all are resolved without the judges writing formal opinions. Without judicial opinions, the law remains unclear in many areas which discourages businesses from entering the state. Most other states with no appellate court have very low populations such as Maine, West Virginia and South Dakota, so the need for an intermediate court is not as great. Nevada’s explosive growth has increased the number of lawsuits which puts pressure on a system that was not designed to handle such volume.
The Nevada State Supreme Court is mindful of the current state of the economy and has created a business plan for the Appeals Court that uses existing resources to keep costs down. The total cost of the project is estimated to be $1.7 million which is dedicated to the salaries for the judges and staff. The Appeals Court would use existing space in the Regional Justice Center in Las Vegas and would share law clerks with the Supreme Court.
The business plan also calls for a “push down” system where all appeals would originally be filed with the Nevada State Supreme Court. The Supreme Court would assign certain cases to the Appeals Court. Most cases would be assigned to the Appeals Court but the Supreme Court would retain exclusive jurisdiction over the following matters: (1) death penalty and life sentence cases; (2) appeals raising constitutional claims; (3) all original extraordinary writ petitions; (4) appeals raising issues of first impression; (5) appeals that would result in the development of Nevada’s state common law; and (6) appeals that require interpretation of Nevada statutes having statewide application. The Nevada Supreme Court would also retain discretionary review over matters that are heard by the Appeals Court.
In contrast, the Appeals Court would hear the following types of cases: (1) civil and criminal appeals that involve correcting an error, reviewing the appellate record and applying existing law; (2) petitions for post-conviction relief, except death penalty cases; and (3) original proceedings concerning challenges to a district court’s ruling in a criminal case, except death penalty and life sentence cases. These type of cases make up the largest portion of appeals currently filed in the Nevada State Supreme Court. By addressing these matters, the Appeals Court would be able to more quickly resolve routine matters such as general business matters, divorces, personal injury claims, and foreclosures.
In 2010, there was a ballot initiative that would have allowed the legislature to create an intermediate court of appeals. Although it passed in Clark County, it failed statewide with only 47% of the voters approving it. However, the 2010 initiative was not legislatively referred. Rather it was brought to the ballot by the voters themselves. In addition, the initiative did not have specific business plan on how to create the appellate court. Rather it simply allowed the legislature to create one. In the case of SJR 14, the Supreme Court and the Legislature have worked diligently to create a specific plan on how the appellate court will function with minimal cost. Therefore, we recommend that you vote “Yes” on SJR 14. Doing so will allow Nevada to compete with other states that have mature legal systems in order to attract businesses to the state. It will also provide quicker justice for ordinary citizens whose cases are languishing on appeal and will allow the Supreme Court to focus on the issues that it is was originally created to review.