September 27, 2014 6:00 am  •  By Dylan Woolf Harris

ELKO — As the election rolls near, northeastern Nevada voters will continue to hear about ballot questions with  significant tax ramifications for businesses, as well as mining companies specifically.

Grabbing fewer headlines, however, is a measure to alter Nevada’s judicial system — which, argues Nevada Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty, could be a “sea change” to ensure swifter justice by the state’s highest court.

“I can’t think of a more important moment for the judicial system, for our citizens and our state,” he said.

After a slim defeat in 2010, the ballot question that asks for the creation of a court of appeals is back in the hands of voters. Hardesty, who drafted the latest version, Question 1, that outlines in detail the plan for implementing and running the court, is campaigning on its behalf and made a couple stops in Elko on Friday.

Nevada is with a minority of states that doesn’t have appellate courts. The result, coupled with Nevada’s population explosion over the last few decades, is that the supreme court has a higher caseload — more than 350 cases per justice each year — than any other state supreme court.

But Hardesty said the court of appeals isn’t needed to ease the justices’ workloads and clear their dockets. The real benefit, he said, will be to the citizens whose appeals are languishing in an extensive backlog, costing them time and money.

“This has to be addressed, or justice in Nevada isn’t just going to be delayed. It is being denied,” he said. “That’s not just a trite phrase; it is a fact in our state.”

Around 56 percent of the Nevada Supreme Court cases take six months just to be heard, 29 percent take more than a year and the rest take two to three years.

“That is an inefficient system of justice,” he said.

The supreme court will continue to hear many appeals for precedential cases. But an appeal over a driver’s license revocation, for example, or an inmate’s complaint about prison food would go before the appellate court.

“I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that those people aren’t entitled to pursue an appeal, but not in front of the highest court in the state.” he said. “… Those are issues that are important to the people in the case, but not important to the system generally or the law generally.”

The measure has been estimated to cost about $1.5 million — which will cover the salaries for the three judges, three secretaries and about six law clerks. Because all appeals will continue to go first to the Nevada Supreme Court, processing costs should remain the same, and there will be no need for additional clerks and staff. The judges will also use existing facilities and new capital projects won’t be required.

Hardesty also said the Supreme Court routinely kicks back unused funds to the state’s general fund — at least one year that amount topped $2.5 million.

The emotional cost for litigants, whether it’s a criminal case, child custody case or personal injury case, waiting for a ruling, he added, are incalculable.

According to Hardesty, a recent survey revealed that state judicial systems are a top 10 concern for businesses that are considering relocation.

If approved, a judicial panel will review applicants and forward three names to the governor for approval. In the following election cycle, the appellate judges would be up for election to serve a six-year term. The Legislature already approved the expected costs during the 2013 session.

A number of neighboring states have intermediate appellant courts, Hardesty said, but that isn’t what Question 1 proposes.

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