Keeping Cases Moving in the Second Judicial District Court

By the Hon. Elliott A. Sattler, Second Judicial District Court, Dept. 10

My Fellow State Bar of Nevada Members:

I want to start by saying I hope this finds you, your families, your staff, and your friends safe and healthy during these turbulent times. On March 16, 2020, Chief Judge Freeman entered Administrative Order 2020-2 (AO-02) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. AO-02 dramatically impacted how the Second Judicial District Court interacted with you and the citizens of Nevada. I have been asked to provide some guidance on how you can best keep your case efficiently moving through the system. I want to emphasize that while the courthouses may be closed, the district court is open and providing almost all the services we provided prior to mid-March.

Before I address the question of how you can continue to efficiently litigate cases, allow me to take a moment to review how we came to be in our current circumstance. The COVID-19 pandemic, the state of emergency, and the associated Stay Home For Nevada orders declared by Governor Steve Sisolak caused the district court to act quickly. AO-02, among other acts, closed physical access to the law library, suspended the meeting of the Washoe County Grand Jury, vacated all jury trials (civil and criminal) scheduled to begin within the next 30 days, limited access to the courthouses for certain individuals in conformance with the Centers for Disease Control guidelines, and established essential case types the district court would continue to hear in the courtrooms. It was the intention of the district court the mission-critical tasks of the General Jurisdiction and Family Division would continue.

Our plans had to be adjusted almost immediately after AO-02 was issued. Chief Judge Freeman issued Administrative Order 2020-05 (AO-05) on March 18, 2020. AO-05 completely closed the district court facilities to public access, and our staff were ordered to work from home. It was determined the district court could not perform its core functions in person and at the same time comply with the social distancing and other requirements necessary to ensure the health of the public, counsel, and district court staff. On May 19, 2020, Chief Judge Freeman entered Administrative Order 2020-05(A) (AO-05A), extending the closure of the district court facilities until guidelines established by the Center for Disease Control and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges can be met. It is unclear when these protocols will be accomplished given the limitations present in our facilities. The district court is in the process of developing our plans for returning to our physical facilities when we can safely do so. Chief Judge Freeman has created a Recovery Committee to determine what this process will look like.

Now to the question at hand: how can you keep your case moving through our system when the district court is not physically in our buildings? My overall suggestion is to proceed as if we were all in our chambers. File your pleadings and request they be heard. Filings have continued through the eFlex system. Your pleadings are being routed to us as if we were in our chambers. Every judge has daily interaction with their staff. Our judicial assistants are all available telephonically and by email, just like before. The district court’s IT personnel has established virtual private network access for our employees so they can perform their jobs remotely. If you feel opposing counsel is using the current state of emergency as a litigation strategy, possibly to delay discovery, please bring it to the district court’s attention. We expect all parties to continue to strive for the goal articulated in NRCP 1 – the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action in Nevada.

The district court purchased a Zoom license for every judicial officer so we can conduct hearings or meetings remotely. The district court is using Zoom exclusively; therefore, I would suggest you download the program (it is free) and try using it with your friends and family. It is very simple. There are numerous articles on the web you can read to assist you in maximizing your experience with the platform. I would suggest you read one or two to make yourself more comfortable. Every judge and master is conducting their proceedings remotely. Zoom proceedings include all forms of criminal hearings for both in-custody and out-of-custody defendants, criminal and civil settlement conferences, oral arguments on motions, bench trials, and all forms of matters in the Family Division.

As an example of how the system is working, for the week of June 1, I had three all-day settlement conferences, an afternoon of out-of-custody criminal cases, a hearing on a Motion to Dismiss a civil complaint, and oral argument on a series of motions in a complex civil action. These all took place remotely. I believe every judge prefers to conduct hearings in person, but for the foreseeable future we will have to make do with virtual court. Please do not request to continue your hearing until we are back in our courthouses; we don’t know when that will be, and the district court is reluctant to continue matters indefinitely.

One of the hallmarks of the American justice system is that it is open and transparent. People are encouraged to walk in and watch as courts conduct their daily business. The district court wants to ensure the confidence in our decisions is maintained by keeping our hearings accessible to the public. The daily calendar for all judges in the district court is available at www.washoecourts.com. You will find a Zoom link for each hearing that would be open to the public under normal circumstances. The hearings are not password protected; all you need to do is click and you will be taken to the proceedings as an observer. You will not be seen by the judge, nor will you be able to be heard. I encourage you to watch a hearing or two prior to conducting one yourself. It will also be helpful to have your clients watch so they will know what to expect. I suggest you review Nevada Supreme Court Rule Part IX-A (rules governing appearance by telephonic and simultaneous visual transmission in criminal proceedings) and Part IX-B (rules governing appearance by telephonic and simultaneous visual transmission in civil and family court proceedings). Please refer to the district court website to view all the administrative orders issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On May 28, 2020, Governor Sisolak issued the Roadmap to Recovery For Nevada: Phase 2. Governor Sisolak said:

State and local government should be closed to the public during Phase 2, whenever possible. This excludes law enforcement, public safety, first responders, public works, and other essential government employees. Local governments have the authority to determine the timeline for reopening offices currently closed to the public. State government offices may begin to open to the public during Phase 2 in a responsible way to provide services that cannot be provided online.

I believe we will be operating remotely for some time to come, though it is difficult to determine exactly how long. I encourage you to keep working your cases as you normally would. Should an issue arise, pick up the phone and call our staff. We are here to help. Be flexible to new ideas, and open to trying something you never thought would work, like a Zoom settlement conference. You will be surprised how efficient you, and the district court, can be.

Stay Safe. Stay well.

Elliott A. Sattler,
District Judge,
Second Judicial District Court,
Department 10