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Desert Companion

Supreme Court Report: Family Court is Doing It (Mostly) Right

The Nevada Supreme Court has issued its report on the counties' family court systems, and guess what? It found the often-criticized Clark County family court is doing most things right.

Ask just about anyone who's been to family court, and they'll find that hard to believe — maybe because it's the place where people go to resolve difficult issues with divorce, child custody, and property disputes. 

Judge Bryce Duckworth is the presiding judge in the Family Division, which is part of the 8th Judicial District Court. He said the cases that he and the 19 other judges in the court oversee are some of the most difficult.

"I've often said and I've often heard that we're dealing with good people at the worst moments of their life," he said, "This is very challenging for people who are embroiled in litigation, particularly when it comes to their children."

Duckworth noted the most contentious cases are the ones that involve the care and custody of children.

While the cases are tough, the judge pointed to a number of programs that aim to make it as easy as possible for people who have to go Family Court. For instance, the court has created a civil self-help center, where people can pick up forms and get one-on-one assistance. The center also has a website that walks users through the procedures their cases entail.

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Judge Duckworth notes that many people who access the court don't have the means to hire an attorney. “I think that is a key component to this, making sure that those who are involved in any type of family-type litigation have access to justice,” he said.

The court has also recently created a new temporary protective order hearing system that allows people seeking a protective order to get it in one day. 

While the report said the court is doing most things well, the court is continually making efforts to improve the service it provides.

Marshal Willick is a family law attorney who's been practicing in Clark County for 40 years. He helped shape the Family Court when it was first separated from the civil division. 

He said the court is a human construct and is therefore in constant need of improvements. "Every human system will need to be better and better, and it's an ongoing process," he said, "It is never finished."

He said the court completely overhauled the rules in 2016, and they're still being tweaked. 

One area that he would like to see improved is feedback to judges. Lawyers and litigants cannot speak to judges about cases, which means they don't get feedback on performance.

"There isn't a really good feedback loop to judges to improve how they do what they do," Willick said.

He said there is a proposal to create a judicial performance commission, which would be a professional group that would review judges and give them suggestions on improving their demeanor and perception. 

Judge Duckworth said he would invite improved feedback from lawyers and litigants.

Besides the better evaluation of judges, Judge Duckworth said the court needs better facilities. Currently, the court is separated into two buildings, which means litigants and lawyers have to go back and forth between buildings.

In addition, the current buildings are at capacity. 

Perhaps one of the most controversial suggestions to improve the court is that of appointing judges instead of electing them. Because judges are elected, they must campaign, and campaigns require money.

"That is inherently problematic," Willick said, because elections can give the idea of corrupting the process.

Judge Duckworth was appointed and then re-elected. He said campaign contributions never factor into his decisions, but he agreed that the current system is flawed.

"I think there is a better system," he said. "The challenge is getting the word out and providing information to voters. Often times when they're voting, they don't have enough information about the judges, and I would much prefer a system where judges are evaluated (and where) perhaps there is some type of commission established that provides a judicial performance evaluation."

Rebecca Gill is an associate professor of Political Science at UNLV. She recently helped with a report card — of sorts — on local judges by local attorneys.

She said in the case of Family Court moving to appointed judges would be a good idea.

"For something like a family court, I think it makes a good deal of sense to have a system like a merit-based system, because the type of work that is done is technical and it would be difficult for voters to be able to gather enough relevant information to make those determinations," she said.

However, she is not sure that appointing judges to courts that handle issues connected to policy is a good idea.

From Desert Companion: Family Circus

Guests

Bryce Duckworth, presiding judge, Clark County Family Court; Marshal Willick, family law attorney; Rebecca Gill, associate professor, Political Science UNLV

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