Friday, November 18, 2011

Do rural Nevadans have less access to justice than their urban counterparts?

The Nevada Supreme Court recently released a study that shows judges in rural Nevada spend nearly one full workday each week on the road. This creates a number of issues for rural areas and raises serious questions about their access to court services.

The report was compiled by the Nevada Supreme Court's Administrative Office of the Courts from 2007 through 2010. The report detailed the burden placed on district court judges in Nevada's four rural judicial districts. Each district reported the mileage traveled by its judges for each of the four years, and the numbers varied between a low of 9,623 miles and a high of 30,306 miles traveled each year.

Many of Nevada's rural districts have one or two judges who must travel long distances in order to provide services to Nevada's rural residents. The Fifth Judicial District Court has two judges who must travel to a total of four different courthouses to provide services to people who live in an area covering more than 25,000 square miles. To contrast, the Second Judicial District Court, located in Reno, has a total of twelve district court judges to service individuals living an area covering just 6,551 square miles. The Second Judicial District Court has one judge for every 30,100 people. Meanwhile, the ratios in Nevada's rural districts range between one judge per every 28,285 people in the Third Judicial District to one judge per every 8,681 people in the Seventh Judicial District.

While we might assume that a lower ratio of people per judge results in a lighter case load, the Nevada Supreme Court noted that the Fifth Judicial District Court had an uptick in cases filed in Pahrump, Nevada (total population 36,441). This required that the judge regularly stationed in Tonopah (total population 2,497) make the three-hour journey more often. In contrast, the judges of the Second Judicial District likely have commute times in line with the average of 21 minutes for all workers in the county. The disparity in commute times likely eats up any advantage that rural judges might enjoy from a reduced caseload.

The fact that rural judges spend an average of 7.1 hours directly reduces the amount of time that those judges can spend on their caseloads each week. Even if Nevada's rural judges manage to put in the same amount of hours actively working on cases, it means they must spend more time total dedicated to their job. This can lead to fatigue and increased levels of stress for those judges as compared judges working in Nevada's cities.

This creates serious questions of equality when comparing judicial services across Nevada's counties. While the average number of residents per judge is lower in rural counties than in Nevada's urban centers, the fact is that Nevada's rural judges lose nearly one day each week behind the wheel. The Nevada Supreme Court has tried to respond to these concerns by providing for more senior judge assistance to manage caseloads and by creating tele-conferencing programs that allow rural judges to preside over cases without having to be physically present. Whether these initiatives are enough to overcome the disadvantages presented by the vast areas these judges must serve is an open question. There can be no doubt however, that rural judges either spend less time on their caseloads or must work longer hours in order to maintain caseloads equal to their urban counterparts.


KB said...

I was shocked to read that rural judges in Nevada are spending the equivalent of one working day per week traveling. How do the state and counties reimburse the judges for their travel? Do the judges go to remote locations for just a day or do they stay a few days and use their time efficiently?

I think using tele-conferencing to allow judges to preside over cases without being there physically is a great idea. I do not think it would work for complicated cases, and thus will not solve the problem completely, but maybe it could help alleviate one travel day per month and save the government some money if the tele-conferencing is cheaper than the travel. Would it be possible for the judges to work while in the car by listening to recordings relevant to their cases or something similar? This might help with the their caseloads.

The question remains of how to remedy the problem completely. Rural judges might not be as alert if they are exhausted from their travel and caseloads. Ideally, it would be best to have more judges, but that would require more money, which no one seems to have.

Jason said...

A similar problem often effects the defendants in criminal cases. When faced with the option of either accepting the plea deal of a day or two in jail and a small fine, versus returning day after day to contest their innocence, it often makes more sense for defendant's to take the deal and quickly get back to their lives rather than making the long commute over and over.

But what's the solution if the defendant lives in an isolated area where there's not enough community members to constitute a jury and the only judge and courthouse are three hours away?

Teleconferencing is a possibility but there seems to be other logistical problems with it. Does a judge viewing a proceeding over the internet have all of the same advantages he would in person? would it open the verdict up for an appeal on that fact alone?

princesspeach said...

KB, I have the same questions as you on who pays for the travel. I would think this is a cost assumed by the state. With state budgets the way they are, perhaps the county the judge is traveling to picks up the tab. A cursory search on google, didn’t yield any results.

Since judges are traveling around, I feel more people will likely plea out to avoid waiting around or the costs of traveling. Teleconferencing and skyping seem like the only feasible options. More judges would be ideal, however that can only happen when we get more money in the budget.