2011 State of the Judiciary Message

State of the Judiciary Message

Presented by Chief Justice Michael L. Douglas

To the Legislature of Nevada

Seventy-Sixth Session, March 7, 2011


Governor Sandoval, Lt. Governor Krolicki, Speaker Oceguera, Senator Horsford, Senator McGinness, Assemblyman Goicoechea, members of the Senate and the Assembly, honorable Constitutional officers, and honored guests.

Tonight I address you on behalf of my friends and colleagues on the Nevada Supreme Court:

Associate Chief Justice Nancy Saitta, Justice Michael Cherry, Justice Mark Gibbons, Justice Kristina Pickering, Justice James Hardesty, and Justice Ron Parraguirre.

I also address you on behalf of the Nevada Judiciary – the Municipal Courts, the Justice Courts, and the District Courts, as well as the nearly 2,000 Judicial Branch employees of the cities, counties, and State that make up those courts and provide services to the people of Nevada each day by affording a safe place for dispute resolution in civil, family, juvenile, and criminal proceedings to the individuals under emotional stress due to being entangled in the Judicial system.

Also with us this evening are several of the State’s judges including Chief Judges from our two urban Judicial Districts – Chief Judge Steinheimer (Washoe County) and Chief Judge Togliatti (Clark County), and Chief Judge Bennett-Heron (Clark County Justice Courts).  Also with us are Judge Tatro (Carson City Justice Court and President of the Nevada Judges of Limited Jurisdiction), Judge Montero (Humboldt, Pershing and Lander Counties District Court), Judge Rogers (Churchill and Lyon Counties District Court), Judge Deriso (Sparks Justice Court), Judge Richards (New River Justice Court), Judge Tiras (Incline Village Justice Court), and Judge Nash-Holmes (Reno Municipal Court).  Additionally, Steve Grierson (Chief Administrator of Clark County Courts), Dean John White (Boyd School of Law), Bill Dressel (President of the National Judicial College), Cam Ferenbach (President of the State Bar of Nevada), and members of the Board of Governors, are here with us this evening.

I additionally ask that you recognize Kathleen Harrington who just retired last Friday after 30 plus years of service to the State.  First with the Department of Prisons, then with the National Judicial College, and thereafter, for 28 years, with the Nevada Supreme Court – the last 8 of those years as the Head of the Supreme Court Law Library.  Kathleen you will be missed by your coworkers, but the people of Nevada that you provided assistance for will miss you the most.  THANK YOU FOR ALL THAT YOU DID, and good luck and best wishes in the days ahead.

I have been provided with a challenge and opportunity to provide you with thoughts from the Nevada Judiciary.  Since the depression of the 1930’s, we have not seen a more challenging time for the people of the State of Nevada than right now.  Regardless of political parties and philosophies, one thing is clear, tough choices will be made as to the budget.  To the extent necessary and possible, the Nevada Judiciary will do its share to support our State.  The Supreme Court, an equal Constitutional branch of Nevada government, has operated on less than one percent (1%) of the State’s budget during the last budget cycle, and the Supreme Court has proposed its new budget with a 16.87% reduction (that is $2,366,372 less) for the new 2011 – 2013 budget.  It will be challenging, but we will, once again, do more with less; we understand that Nevada is at crossroads.  No one envies the tough choices that have to be made by you, the Legislature, for the welfare of the people of Nevada; and it is clear that you have been chosen to find solutions – to think outside the box, if you will – for the People of Nevada who need your leadership at this time.

We should not forget the obvious, we are the “Battle Born” state and we operate under a Constitution and the rule of law that provides for stability and predictability for our free market and personal freedoms, unlike other places in the world.  Under our State Constitution each branch of Government has its own responsibilities to the people.  The Judicial Branch can not pass laws like the Legislature, and the Judicial Branch can not approve or veto laws like the Governor.  The Judicial Branch interprets and honors laws as passed pursuant to our Constitution.

To fulfill that responsibility, the Judicial Branch must be independent of politics and personalities and concerns as to public popularity.  The Judicial Branch – the Court – has but one true allegiance – that is to the Constitution and the rule of law.  That belief is captioned in the words of the pledge of allegiance, and you can find those words in the top of your Nevada Supreme Court rotunda – “liberty and justice for all.”

It’s just that simple.  Former United States Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell once remarked:

“It is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society . . . .  It is fundamental that justice should be the same in substance and availability, without regard to . . . status.”

Thus, the core function, if you will, of the Judicial Branch is to resolve disputes under the rule of law – our Constitution – in a fair, impartial, and timely manner.

That is the Judicial Branch’s responsibility under the Constitution, which is what we must do, despite the budget challenges we face today.

Thus, in light of our challenges, I will not offer you a new vision of Nevada’s judicial future.  What I will do is state that your Judicial Branch will continue to do its part and look at how we can better deliver dispute resolution services to the people of Nevada.

As to our service, dispute resolution, the Nevada Judicial Branch (Municipal, Justice, District and Supreme courts) resolved 2,026,051 cases in years 2009 - 2010.  The Nevada Supreme Court resolved 4,586 cases in that time period, with a 104% clearance rate; however, due to our case load, we still had a carry forward of 1,514 pending cases at the beginning of 2011, with the expectation that 2,050 new appeals will be filed in both 2011 and 2012.  Thus, I must note that old saying, “justice delayed is justice denied.”

Additionally, I would point out that our case load and the case types of the District courts don’t track the same.  At the Supreme Court:  47% of our cases are criminal, 33% are civil, and 17% are other, with 3% being family and juvenile.  At the District courts:  51% of cases are family, 28% civil, 11% juvenile, with 10% criminal; just something to think about.

Case numbers do not tell the whole story, each of the 2,000,000 plus cases require a sensibility to the needs of someone’s liberty and freedom, or the disposition of someone’s property, or the custody of someone’s children.  The enormity of dealing with a person under stress with limited resources has become more daunting in these challenging times.  Limited resources, increased work loads, greater case complexity, as well as more self represented parties in court, is just an overview of the issues.  The nightly news provides pictures and sounds of the coming attractions for the courts.  Stories on the news related to drug use and related violence, violent crimes, followed by stories of sagging business, unemployment, mortgage foreclosure, and child – domestic – and elder abuse, should give all of us pause as to the challenges of the State Judicial Branch.

That reality is that the State Judicial Branch must provide dispute resolution for all under the rule of law with limited funds.  That will require us to think outside of the box – outside of our normal comfort zone.  That resolution requires more than just standing before judges or having jury trials.

In the criminal context, resolution might be a trip to a Specialty Court.  So what is a Specialty Court?  Specialty Courts use problem solving processes designed to address the root causes of some criminal activity.  Some of the most prominent types of Specialty Courts are drug courts, mental health courts, DUI courts, and prison re-entry courts.  Specialty Courts may additionally specialize to address the needs of adults, families, juveniles, and low-level repeat offenders directly affected by the root problems of drugs, alcohol and mental health issues.

We have been blessed in Nevada by legislative support of the Specialty Court programs.  Pioneer Judges like Peter Breen, Jack Lehman, John McGroarty, and Archie Blake have led the way.  And new leaders like Judge Jackie Glass, Judge Andrew Puccinelli and Judge Cedric Kerns have followed with new programs to break the cycle of despair.

Specialty Courts provide a direct benefit to all of us.  Specialty Courts benefit the county and State budgets by reducing time in jail at taxpayer expense, and allowing the individual to return to being a contributing member of our local communities.  In 2009 – 2010, Nevada Specialty Courts had 5,167 persons enrolled, graduated 2,542 persons, had 133 drug free babies related to participants, with 2,701 cases continuing into the start of 2011.  So let me tell you a quick story about Las Vegas Municipal Court Judge Cedric Kerns’ YO Court – that is Youth Offender Court.  The individuals are both young and addicted to drugs.  In one specific case, the female had been using crack, her mug shot from a year ago was that of a crack head.  Her family had lost all hope; they thought she was going to die, but a new arrest and YO court saved her.  Judge Kerns created a year long program with counseling, housing assistance and court supervision that fights to keep the participants straight for a year with a plan on how to live.  Judge Kerns says it’s a fight – a struggle – “we save what we can save” or we go down fighting.  YO court is a 20 defendant program; however they have 30 enrolled in the program with funding provided by NRS 176.0613 and private funds.  It is just one of the Specialty Courts within our State that tries to resolve disputes outside the box.  All Nevada counties have a Specialty Court program through the Nevada courts.

In the civil context, before the Foreclosure Mediation Program, a desperate homeowner might have had a problem finding anyone in authority with his bank or lender willing to listen to his home payment problem; conversely the banks and the lenders were not getting responses from homeowners in default.  You, the Legislature, created a program in 2009 to address that problem and asked the Court to run it, to allow a new form of dispute resolution as to owner-occupied mortgage defaults.  The program provided an opportunity for the homeowner and the lender to discuss, through the mediation program, alternatives to foreclosure (i.e. new payment plans, cash for keys, short sales).  The program uses no State funds and is run at its inception outside the courthouse, with both sides having a right of judicial review.  As to the Foreclosure Mediation Program, in 2010:

79,232 notices of default were filed
(non-specific as to owner-occupied)

8,738 requested mediation

6,614 were assigned mediation

4,212 mediations were completed

89% of mediations avoided foreclosure

74% of homes were retained by the owner

This program has been hailed as cutting-edge and is now a model for other states; that is dispute resolution outside the box, and it is also branches of government working together for all Nevadans.

I end now, not because I am finished, but due to time.  I would love to tell you more about the Judicial Branch, about:  Law Day Live and texting, the Court Improvement Program – CIP – designed to help welfare families and foster kids, or Access to Justice, with private Bar pro bono attorneys helping poor Nevadans, or Nevada’s other program that has drawn national attention, related to improving Indigent Criminal Defense, or our use of Technology in the Courts – web cast, public information portals, E-filing, E-tickets, and more.  But, time is an issue if I were to try to tell you about all the Judicial Branch does, so if you have a question – give me or my fellow Justices a call with your question as to the Courts and the Court’s programs.

So let me close with this:

Remember, justice belongs to all the people, not to either political party, not to any special interest.  A system of justice, the rule of law, is necessary to support our economy and to support our personal freedoms under our Constitution.  A system of justice can only exist as long as the people have trust and confidence that dispute resolution will be fair, impartial, and timely.

The Judicial Branch of Nevada is committed to “justice for all” and the rule of law for all the people of Nevada.

Thank you for listening, and I know that you will answer the challenge for Nevada in the coming days.