Reforming Defender Systems Through Court Orders: the Nevada story

In March of 2007, the Las Vegas Review-Journal began running a spotlight series entitled "Conflicted Justice" on the continuing problems of indigent defense in the state of Nevada.  In large part as a result of those articles, the Nevada Supreme Court formed an indigent defense task force, later named the Commission on Indigent Defense.

Established April 26, 2007 and led by Nevada Supreme Court Justice Michael Cherry, the Commission was charged to examine and make recommendations regarding the delivery of indigent defense services in Nevada.  At its first meeting, Chief Justice Maupin stated that the mission of the Commission was not to decide whether to implement the ABA Ten Principles, but rather how best to do so.  Three sub-committees were formed, on independence, caseloads, and rural issues.  The Commission conducted a statewide survey of indigent defense services and held meetings throughout 2007.  David Carroll of NLADA was invited to speak at the first Commission meeting held in May of 2007, has served as an ex-officio member of the Commission throughout its tenure, and continues today to serve as technical advisor to the Supreme Court in their work on indigent defense.

Just six months after being established, on November 20, 2007, the Commission issued its "Final Report and Recommendations of Supreme Court Indigent Defense Commission."  There was not complete agreement among the Commission members, so two minority reports were also prepared: one from the Washoe County and Clark County management; and one from District Judge Stewart Bell and Justice of the Peace Kevin Higgins.

The Nevada Supreme Court is given authority to regulate all legal practice in the state.  See NV Constitution Article 6, Section 19, and Supreme Court Rule 39.  Based on this authority and the recommendations of the Commission, on January 4, 2008, the Court issued an Order in ADKT No. 411:

  • establishing a single standard to be used for determining indigency;
  • requiring that trial judges be excluded from the process for: appointing counsel; approving fees for attorneys, experts, and investigators; and determining indigency of defendants;
  • implementing performance standards (this was subsequently put off until April 1, 2009);
  • requiring that weighted caseload studies be done for the Clark and Washoe County Public Defender offices, and for the State Public Defender office, and requiring that public defenders in Clark and Washoe counties notify their county commissioners when they are unavailable to accept additional appointments based on ethical considerations;
  • requiring the AO to develop a method of collecting uniform statistics on indigent defendants; and
  • establishing a permanent statewide commission for the oversight of indigent defense.

In a huge victory for clients of public defense services, ADKT 411 is a sweeping order that mandates attorney performance standards; independence from the judiciary regarding appointment of counsel, experts, and investigators; and uniform standards for determining indigency.  Complete information about all of the work to date of the Nevada Commission on Indigent Defense and related Orders of the Supreme Court of Nevada can be found here.

Publication Date: 01/21/2010