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Nevada's family courts have issues. What can fix them?

Tingey Law Firm/Unsplash

Problems and issues related to Family Court in Nevada go back decades.

In 2006, Washoe County family court Judge Chuck Weller was shot by Darren Mack, who was later convicted of murdering his wife.

In 2013 in Las Vegas, a Family Court martial was accused of excessive force against a litigant who had already been restrained.

The same decade, Family Court Judge William Potter ordered a lawyer handcuffed in his court, and in 2020, he was publicly admonished by the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline for violating judicial canons.

And in early April, 77-year-old Joe Houston shot and killed attorney Dennis Prince, a lawyer who was representing his wife, Ashley, in a custody battle against Joe Houston’s son, Dylan Houston. Following their murders, Joe Houston shot himself.

Beyond violence and disciplinary action, the system is also swamped with cases. Clark County’s 8th Judicial District reported over 54,000 Family Court filings and dispositions, making up 18% of the docket for non-traffic related cases.

Enter Our Nevada Judges, a local nonprofit founded by Alex Falconi, which evaluates local judges based on how often their decisions are upheld on appeal. In mid 2022, Our Nevada Judges joined forces with the ACLU of Nevada to challenge a District Court ruling that upheld closed Family Court proceedings.

In February of 2023, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that the public has a constitutional right to access Family Court cases.

Thus, a history of total confidentiality in domestic court cases going back to the founding of the state was reversed. Legal watchers, like Falconi, argue that the previous lack of transparency gave judges the ability to make poor rulings, without fear of repercussions.

“Bringing the cameras into Family Court brings the public influence into Family Court,” Falconi said. “I think it's a necessary influence so that the judges understand the need to consider the parents and the children and the public's perspective.”

Instead of full closure, advocates of open court policies say that cases should be closed on an individual basis, after a compelling reason is given as to why.

Athar Haseebullah, the executive director of the ACLU of Nevada, echoed Falconi in his belief that transparency will have a positive effect on Family Court rulings.

“What we don't want to ever see happen is a system where elected judges don't have any eyes on them at any point, and they can effectively do what they want to do. There's already distrust of the court system and the judiciary, as well as the rest of the government, and that's probably most true in Family Court.”

Yet, others view it as a privacy issue. Marshal Willick, an attorney who’s practiced family law for 40 years, said opening up the Family Court system to public scrutiny has the potential to expose sensitive information in cases where people are particularly vulnerable.

“Putting people's private personal information out on the internet is not going to do anything to try to actually assist in judicial quality or the quality of judicial decisions,” he said. “It's a misnomer.”

Even when the videos are redacted and faces are blurred, as Our Nevada Judges does, Stewart Chang, a professor at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law, still condemns the practice of taping Family Court proceedings. He said the act of opening these cases to the public risks creating an environment rife for child exploitation and outside meddling in private family matters.

“In no way should children, especially at such a vulnerable time in their young lives, be put under exposure of the media or of folks that just really do not have any business in [their] case.”

Yet, Haseebullah reassures those concerned about privacy violations that the Nevada Supreme Court’s ruling won’t apply to all cases.

“The actual opinion of the Court wasn't that these hearings can't be sealed,” he noted. “It's that you have to satisfy a higher level of scrutiny, because there's a presumption that courts are [now] open.”

Guests: Alexander Falconi, founding director, Our Nevada Judges; Athar Haseebullah, executive director, ACLU of Nevada; Stewart Chang, professor of law, UNLV’s Boyd School of Law; Marshal Willick, family court attorney

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.