LAS VEGAS (AP) — Justice hasn't always been swift in Nevada, which until last week's election was one of 10 states in the nation without an intermediate court of appeals.
That meant that every appeal from each of the state's 82 district courts — death penalty convictions, medical malpractice judgments, prison food complaints, administrative hearing reviews, driver's license revocations — had to be heard by a very busy seven-member Nevada Supreme Court.
After three earlier attempts since 1980, voters on Nov. 4 heard the state high court's plea and agreed to establish a three-judge state Court of Appeals that proponents say will give Supreme Court justices time to focus on the most important cases and publish more opinions to serve as legal precedent. In recent years, the court has published opinions in no more than 4 percent of appealed cases.
"The legal precedent can then be used by judges, lawyers and litigants in predicting the outcome of their legal affairs," said Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty, who spearheaded the campaign for the appellate court initiative, Question 1. It passed by a 54 percent to 46 percent margin.
After years opposing the idea, even Richard Gammick, outgoing district attorney in Washoe County, grudgingly backed the idea of a state appellate court. "This leaves the Supreme Court in the position of giving their attention to those major cases that need it," he said.
Court officials are wasting no time in getting the court up and running ahead of a Jan. 5 start date.
The state Board of Examiners on Wednesday will be asked to release $782,500 in startup money that the Legislature set aside last year in case voters approved the constitutional amendment to create the court. The Legislature's Interim Finance Committee is expected to also sign off on the funding.
Meanwhile, the Nevada Commission on Judicial Selection has received five applications ahead of a 5 p.m. Wednesday deadline, commission official Myrna Byrd said. Interviews will take place next month, and Gov. Brian Sandoval will appoint the first three judges, at an annual base salary of $165,000. Judges will have to run for election in November 2016 to a six-year term.
The Supreme Court will hold a Dec. 4 hearing to establish rules for the new court, Hardesty said. Plans call for one of the three appellate judges to serve as chief, and for the court to formulate its own operating procedures.
All civil and criminal appeals will still go to the state Supreme Court, which is on pace to render about 2,300 rulings this year. Hardesty said the court has a backlog of 2,167 open cases.
The high court will assign or "push down" about 700 to 800 cases a year to the Court of Appeals, which will have offices in existing space at the Clark County Regional Justice Center in Las Vegas and the Supreme Court building in Carson City.
On the list could be venue challenges, injunctions and administrative appeals on state board of equalization, workers compensation or unemployment compensation. Tax, water and public utility appeals would remain on the high court docket.
Civil case litigants will still be required to try settlement and mediation conferences before their appeal is heard.
Criminal cases may still get fast-track treatment under a program that, since 1995, has cut the average disposition time from about 18 months to eight months. But Hardesty said the court may revisit the fast-track program in response to criticism that the high court doesn't hear the whole case.
"Because of the abbreviated briefing, we haven't been able to develop all the issues the way we'd like," Hardesty acknowledged.
Phil Kohn, Clark County public defender, and Howard Brooks, the deputy who handles as many as 150 appeals a year to the Supreme Court, said they hoped fast-tracking will stop.
The most complicated cases take the most time, Brooks said. But "the sheer volume of the less-complicated cases can possibly hinder those cases receiving the necessary attention."
"We need someone who has the time to adequately hear our appeals — someone to grade the district courts' work and have the time to do it right. We want to see every case fully briefed," Brooks said.