Nevada Court Quagmire Waits — And Waits — For Voters To Solve It

The courts are clogged in Nevada, partly because the state doesn't have an intermediate appeals court. Will Stone of Reno Public Radio reports that swaying voters to create one could prove difficult.

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The courts are clogged in Nevada. The state's Supreme Court says it is the busiest in the country. Nevada is one of just 10 states without an intermediate appeals court. A proposal to create one is on the ballot this fall.

And as Will Stone of Reno Public Radio reports, voters have rejected that idea in the past.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: On a given day, Barbara Buckley sees just about any kind of legal issue out there.

BARBARA BUCKLEY: We probably have 10 clients in the waiting room seeking help for everything from divorce to bankruptcy to fraud.

STONE: Buckley is director here at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, in Las Vegas.

BUCKLEY: Every day, I see the true meaning of the slogan, you know, justice delayed is justice denied.

STONE: Buckley says cases in front of the Nevada Supreme Court are not being resolved fast enough. She recalls a minor paralyzed while trying to protect her sister who was killed at their home. She wanted to be adopted after that, but the lower court denied her. So she appealed.

BUCKLEY: It got sent back down because something else had happened. It got sent back up. So, yes, I mean, clients of ours, in general, have waited for years for their opportunity to be heard.

STONE: That's not unusual. At last count, Nevada had more than 330 cases filed per justice each year. It's closer to 200 in Arizona and about 100 in Utah. Both of those neighboring states have intermediate appellate courts that shoulder some of the burden. But in Nevada, the Supreme Court must review any appeal. Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty says he's spending time on cases that have little impact on the legal system as a whole.

CHIEF JUSTICE JAMES HARDESTY: Do you want us working on precedential-setting cases, the most important cases that are filed in the Supreme Court or do you want us to resolve driver's license revocations or inmate disputes about clothing and food?

STONE: Most other states without an appeals court haven't seen the same population growth as Nevada has over the last decade. One with a similar caseload is West Virginia. But so far, there hasn't been a groundswell for a new court there.

BILL RAFTERY: In the 1960s and '70s, intermediate appellate courts began to be created in a broader scale because there was an effort at restructuring from top to bottom the state judiciary.

STONE: That's Bill Raftery with the National Center for State Courts. Nevada, on the other hand, missed that wave of reform. Establishing an appeals court here requires voters to approve a constitutional amendment. Since the 1980s, justices have tried to make it happen. All three times, the measure has failed. This election cycle, though, the legal community is throwing its full weight behind the initiative, and both political parties are backing it. But there's a problem.

FRED LOKKEN: Voters nationally do not connect with judicial issues.

STONE: Fred Lokken is a political scientist at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno. He says advocates of a new court don't have the resources to launch an effective campaign.

LOKKEN: So they still will be underfunded with an issue that's too complicated for most voters to agree with and, frankly, is philosophically sort of distasteful.

STONE: Lokken says it's distasteful because Nevadans have a basic mistrust of government. Despite this anxiety, the actual cost of an appeals court is only about $1.5 million. Back at the Legal Aid Center, Barbara Buckley says it's easy for people to write it off as one more layer of bureaucracy until they're in court themselves.

BUCKLEY: It really doesn't matter what side you're on, whether you're on one side of the lawsuit or the other. Everybody wants it decided, right?

STONE: Justices hope the voters finally see it that way come November. For NPR News, I'm Will Stone in Reno.

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