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History of the Supreme Court of Nevada

H.O. Beatty, James Lewis and C.M. Brosnan. 1864.
H.O. Beatty, James Lewis and C.M. Brosnan. 1864.

The area now known as the State of Nevada was part of the Provisional State of Deseret, later to become Utah Territory. Sitting in Salt Lake City or Fillmore, 500 miles to the east, the Utah territory Supreme Court had little impact on the residents at the foot of the Sierra Nevada. Residents of the western Utah Territory known as Washoe, after the native Washoe people, wanted a government of their own.

When the Nevada Territory was created in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln appointed three justices to the Territorial Supreme Court. They were Chief Justice George Turner, and Associate Justices Horatio N. Jones and Gordon N. Mott. In 1864, President Lincoln named Powhatan B. Locke and John W. North as Associate Justices to replace Jones and Mott.

The Justices also served as trial judges, "riding the circuits," until, beleaguered by politics and volatile mining disputes, all resigned in August of 1864.

Supreme Court Chambers in Capitol Building
Supreme Court Chambers in Capitol

When Nevada achieved statehood on October 31, 1864, James F. Lewis, Henry O. Beatty, and C.M. Brosnan were elected to the first Nevada Supreme Court. Article 6 of the Nevada Constitution provides that Justices be elected for six-year terms. The most senior member of the court in commission becomes the Chief Justice and should two Justices be eligible, the Chief is chosen by lot. In 1864, the Court consisted of three Justices, and as Nevada has grown, so has the number Justices. In 1967, the Nevada Legislature exercised the power granted to it by the state constitution and increased the number of Justices to five. The Legislature again increased the number of Justices to seven in 1997. In 2014, voters approved an amendment to Article 6 of the Nevada Constitution, to create a Court of Appeals, adding three Judges to hear appellate cases in Nevada.

Thomas Hawley (1873-79)
Thomas Hawley (1873-79)

The Territorial Supreme Court issued only eighty-two opinions between 1861 and 1864. In contrast, the Supreme Court of Nevada disposed of 1,852 cases by opinion or order in 2019. The Court of Appeals disposed of 1,301 cases. Together, the Court’s disposed of 3,153 cases. The opinions of the Territorial Supreme Court have never been published, but the most important decisions of the Nevada Supreme Court are published in an annual volume entitled Nevada Reports, found in most libraries.

The Nevada Judicial History Database contains information about all of the Justice and Judges who have served Nevada's courts.