2019 State of the Judiciary Message

Governor Sisolak, Lt. Gov. Marshall, Speaker Frierson, Majority Leader Cannizzaro; Majority Leader Benitez-Thompson; Attorney General Ford; distinguished members of the Senate and the Assembly, honorable constitutional officers, and honored guests. Thank you for the opportunity of speaking to the Nevada Legislature on behalf of our state’s judicial system.

On January 16th in his State of the State address, Governor Sisolak began his remarks by acknowledging that for the first time in history, the Nevada Legislature has a majority of women. When I first began my career in Nevada as an attorney, Nevada had never elected a woman to either the Nevada Supreme Court or the district court. In 1982, Miriam Shearing became the first woman elected to the district court. Judge Shearing made history again in 1992 when she became the first woman elected to the Nevada Supreme Court. As Nevada makes further history, the Nevada Supreme Court now also has a majority of women.

I’d like to introduce my colleagues on the Nevada Supreme Court – Associate Chief Justice Kristina Pickering, Justice Jim Hardesty, Justice Ron Parraguirre, Justice Lidia Stiglich, Justice Elissa Cadish and Justice Abbi Silver. It is my privilege to serve with these distinguished jurists. Tonight from the Nevada Court of Appeals, we have with us Chief Judge Michael Gibbons and our newest judge, Bonnie Bulla. Also with us tonight are Chief Judge Linda Bell from the Clark County District Court, Chief Judge Scott Freeman from the Washoe County District Court, together with Judge Bridget Robb from Washoe County, Judge Tom Stockard from Churchill County and Judge Tom Gregory from Douglas County. I would also like to recognize and thank the Clerk of the Supreme Court, Elizabeth Brown; Legal counsel, Phaedra Kalicki; the Supreme Court’s extraordinary legal staff; the Director and Assistant Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, Robin Sweet and John McCormick; Law Library Director, Jason Sowards, and the dedicated and hardworking staff of the Supreme Court and AOC.

I would like to acknowledge attorney Tom Harris, Chief Assistant Clerk. Tom passed away on February 21, 2019. Tom spent 19 years with the court and was an extraordinary member of our court family. His loss is deeply felt by all of us and we will miss him very much.

I am privileged to speak on behalf of our 3 Court of Appeals judges, 82 district court judges, 67 justices of the peace, 30 municipal court judges, and the nearly 2,000 court employees throughout the state. On behalf of all employees of the Supreme Court and the Administrative Office of the Courts, I thank Governor Sisolak for including in his budget a request for a salary increase for all state employees and teachers. Speaking as a long-term Nevada resident, I hope that consideration is also given to a pay increase for the most underpaid state employees in Nevada: the sixty-three hard working members of the Nevada Legislature. We appreciate your hard work, sacrifice and dedication not only during the session, but with the constituent and committee work you do throughout the year.

Nevada’s judicial officers and court employees are committed to the administration of fair and impartial justice in criminal, civil, family, and juvenile disputes in accordance with the rule of law. In fulfilling our constitutional duties, we are mindful of the importance of providing timely access to the court system and resolving cases as efficiently as budgets and caseloads permit.

I am proud to serve with these dedicated public servants and offer my profound thanks to all of them for their service to all Nevadans.

My purpose this evening is to discuss the state of the Judicial Branch. In doing so, I would like to share with you some of the many accomplishments of the Nevada courts and offer a vision for the future of Nevada’s Judiciary.

As you know, the resolution of disputes represents the core function of the Nevada court system. In today’s environment, what is the right role for Nevada’s Judiciary?

Whether we like it or not, the state courts of this country are in the eye of the storm. We have become the emergency room for society’s worst ailments – substance abuse, family violence, mental illness, and so much more. This reality has forced the courts to approach cases with innovation and collaboration with all involved. These pressures underscore the need for a public judicial system that is timely and efficient in its management of a case, while treating each person with respect and dignity.

As Justices of the Supreme Court, some of our duties include community outreach. For the past decade, the Supreme Court has held oral arguments of actual cases in high schools throughout Nevada. In Washoe County, the court has held arguments at Reno High School, Bishop Manogue and Sparks High Schools. In Clark County, the court has held arguments at Palo Verde, Valley and Bishop Gorman high schools. Outside of our two largest counties, the court has held oral arguments at high schools in Pahrump, Tonopah, Panaca, West Wendover, Elko, Winnemucca, Fallon, Yerington and Minden. When we meet with high school students, we have an opportunity to show them how the courts work and answer their questions. It also gives us the chance to emphasize the importance of completing their education and the dangers of substance abuse.

As part of our community outreach, we urge all of our judges to serve on jury duty when the opportunity arises. In Clark County, a number of our district judges have served as jurors for civil cases. Several years ago, I was selected for jury duty for a one-week criminal trial in Carson City. I took this opportunity as a juror to submit several written questions to witnesses during the trial. My jury service was a great experience and I urge all Nevadans to do so if you have the opportunity.

Since the Nevada Court of Appeals was created in 2015, it has improved justice in our state by reducing the Supreme Court’s caseload, shortening the time to decide appellate cases and increasing the number of published opinions on Nevada law. From what I have witnessed during the first four years of operation, I can state with confidence that the Court of Appeals has a very bright future.

Since 2015, the Court of Appeals has been assigned approximately 4,000 cases. By the end of 2018, the Court of Appeals had decided approximately 3,600 of these cases, or 90% of the cases assigned to it. The success of the Court of Appeals is one of many examples of the achievements of the Nevada Judiciary.

I would like to update you on a few others.

  • In 2001, the Supreme Court created the Business Court in Clark and Washoe counties. Patterned loosely after Delaware’s Chancery Courts, the Business Courts in Nevada are designed to resolve the most complex, lengthy, and expensive business disputes in a timely, cost efficient manner. Prior to establishing Nevada’s business court system, these cases usually took more than 4 years to complete. Today, a Business Court case takes roughly 2 years to reach conclusion.
  • Nevada’s drug courts and other specialty courts continue the incredible journey that began in 1992 when Nevada launched the nation’s fifth drug court. The Legislature’s continued support of these courts through administrative assessments and general fund appropriations has enabled dedicated specialty court judges and staff to achieve successes that no one thought possible. In 2018 alone, the 56 drug and mental health courts throughout the state served 6,527 clients with 1,284 of these clients completing the program and graduating that year. During the past year, 48 drug free babies were born to participants in these and other specialty courts – that is 48 babies who now have a chance to grow up without the prenatal limitations caused by drug-addicted mothers.
  • Individuals charged with non-violent crimes who have opioid or other substance abuse addictions can enroll in specialty court and complete an intensive rehabilitation program. When they are successful and graduate, they will receive a reduction or dismissal of the criminal charges. Recently, 28 clients graduated from the Medication Assisted Treatment Court. This two-year diversion court serves adults suffering from opioid addiction under the supervision of a medical doctor. Medications, such as Suboxone and Vivitrol, are prescribed to help addicts end dependency. Because of this success, the Medication Assisted Treatment Court now has been expanded to 55 participants.
  • National studies show that almost 60% of criminal defendants who graduate from a drug court program remain drug free for the remainder of their lives and do not commit new crimes.
  • It is easier to staff drug courts in Nevada’s urban areas. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court, through the Specialty Court Funding Committee, is making every effort to allocate necessary resources to our rural communities. As part of our state’s effort to fight the opioid crisis and other controlled substance abuse, the Supreme Court has requested senior judges to assist the district courts to expand the number of participants in drug court programs. For example, Senior Judges Peter Breen, at age 79, and Archie Blake, at age 76, drive 1900 miles every month between Lovelock, Fallon, Hawthorne, Yerington, Minden and Carson City to assist the district courts to service more than 460 drug court clients AND HELP SAVE LIVES. Senior Judges Breen and Blake were two of the pioneers of development of drug courts in Nevada during the 1990s. When individuals with substance abuse problems graduate from drug court, they not only avoid incarceration at taxpayers’ expense, but are able to maintain employment and contribute as productive members of society.
  • Also, I want to update you on the success of the felony DUI court program. There are 11 DUI court programs throughout Nevada. This specialty court deals with serious and chronic DUI offenders who have failed to appreciate their actions after prior jail or prison terms. The DUI court has been remarkably successful in breaking the destructive cycle of these offenders. In 2018, 278 clients graduated from DUI court programs throughout Nevada.

These initiatives are a few of the many achievements of the judicial branch. All of them illustrate the dedication of the judges and court employees who work very hard every day to make the courts responsive to the needs of Nevada’s citizens.

As we look to the future, I perceive a lengthy agenda for Nevada’s judicial system. We must continue our efforts to make the public judicial system responsive to the needs of people in civil cases. Access to justice in Nevada cannot be just a goal: it must be a reality. Families and children in crisis and unrepresented litigants have every right to expect their judicial system to work equally for them. Too often, parties turn away from the public judicial system because it is just too expensive and takes too long. This issue is not unique to Nevada. A committee of the Conference of Chief Justices has been studying two fundamental reasons for cost and delay in the public judicial system. These reasons are case management by judges and the rules of civil procedure. Discovery rules add cost and time to an already challenging process. The Nevada Supreme Court recently approved the recommendations of a committee of experts, who included Justices Pickering and Cadish, Judge Bulla, Judge Wilson from Carson City, Judge Wanker from Pahrump and Washoe County Discovery Commissioner Wesley Ayres. As a result, the Supreme Court has amended the Nevada Rules of Civil Procedure to help accomplish these goals. These rule changes will assist civil litigants for years to come.

In addition, we must study and improve our methods for setting pretrial release conditions for those accused of a crime. Pretrial judicial decisions about the release or detention of a defendant must be based on risk assessments. The decisions of judges have a significant impact on thousands of defendants. Incarceration adds great financial stress to publicly funded jails holding defendants who are unable to make bail and meet financial conditions of release. As our jail populations swell, particularly in Clark County, Nevada’s judges are adopting Nevada specific pretrial release assessment tools that better determine if a defendant will fail to appear or present a risk of safety to others. Studies show that imposing conditions on a defendant that are appropriate for that individual following a valid pretrial risk assessment substantially reduce pretrial detention without impairing the judicial process or threatening public safety. In Washoe County and Clark County, District Judges Elliot Sattler and Doug Herndon, together with Justices of the Peace Scott Pearson and Joe Bonaventure, have initiated programs utilizing risk assessment tools to grant pre-trial release to individuals accused of crimes, but who do not have the money or collateral to obtain bail. In rural Nevada, courts in Douglas and Churchill Counties have voluntarily initiated similar programs. These tools have been very successful in predicting whether an individual will commit other offenses while awaiting trial and further ensure that the individual will appear for all scheduled court appearances. The Nevada Supreme Court entered an order yesterday requiring all Nevada courts to commence training for the use of pretrial risk assessment tools within 9 months. We urge the legislature to expand the statutory authority of these pretrial risk assessment tools.

I am excited about the future of Nevada’s judicial system. I can’t think of a better time to practice law in our state. Boyd Law School is ranked among the top 60 law schools in the country. We have judges and court employees who are motivated, enthusiastic, innovative, and engaged in working every day to make our public judicial system the best that it can be. I am proud to serve with these outstanding public servants. However, we cannot take the public’s confidence in the courts for granted. We can improve justice if we adhere to the rule of law, remain proactive in the management of our cases, creative in our efforts to provide access to the courts, sensitive to the needs of people who come before us, innovative in our resolution of disputes, accountable for our behavior and decisions, and fiscally responsible and transparent in all that we do.

Finally, I want to leave you with a thought from Cicero, a Roman politician and lawyer, who said, “The people’s good is the highest law.”

Thank you for the opportunity to visit with you.