Last month, Nevada Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty surprised some with his rant on traffic tickets during a pre-session budget hearing. He reiterated this concern at another budget hearing in the Nevada Legislature this week. What’s the matter with parking tickets?
At the January 26 hearing, Justice Hardesty testified to a Nevada Legislature interim committee and provided a primer on how the courts work. Towards the end of that hearing, he issued a dire warning on how Nevada funds its courts. “Under those reports, it showed repeatedly that this was a serious racial bias problem […] Nevada is ripe for that kind of evaluation and that legal challenge.”
What was Hardesty referring to? He specifically cited a March 2016 U.S. Justice Department letter from then Civil Rights Division chief Vanita Gupta and then Office for Access to Justice Director Lisa Foster. Gupta and Foster sent the letter to local courts across the nation. They asked courts to show more caution in charging defendants fines and fees.
“Individuals may confront escalating debt; face repeated, unnecessary incarceration for nonpayment despite posing no danger to the community; lose their jobs; and become trapped in cycles of poverty that can be nearly impossible to escape.”
How is this relevant to Nevada? In 2015, the Nevada Supreme Court ran into a $1.4 million shortfall due to a drop in parking ticket revenue. Around the same time, the U.S. Justice Department released a report on its investigation into the historic racial bias shown by the police department in Ferguson, Missouri. In that report, the Justice Department found that city, judicial, and law enforcement officials had coordinated to target the area’s most economically vulnerable residents.
Justice Hardesty mentioned this again at a joint Assembly-Senate budget hearing today. He hit back when legislators were asking why the courts continue to face fiscal hardship. “Fundamentally, the problem is not just collection. The tickets aren’t being written. […] If you don’t write tickets, you’ll see dramatic drop in revenue.” Hardesty noted the courts continue to receive less in revenue due to judges applying more discretion in charging these very “administrative fees”.
Read Pages 30 and 31 of this Nevada Supreme Court presentation to see how misdemeanor fines fund state courts.
Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford (D-Spring Valley) then asked aloud “whether it’s the right thing to do to fund our courts.” Ford described the current funding mechanism as a “perverse incentive”. “Why would we have an operation to run on where we get as much in fines as we can from our citizenry?”
Senator David Parks (D-Paradise) concurred. “They adversely impact those who can least afford them.” He reminded the committee he has voted against raising these very “administrative fees” in the past. Hardesty agreed that this reliance on “administrative fees” erodes the public’s trust in the judiciary. “It raises the prospect, the imperatus, that there’s an improper relationship.” He then noted that Chief Justice Ron Parraguirre has asked him to study this issue further.
“I would urge the Legislature to study what happens to the fine money. […] Take a look at how that’s performing, or not.” Hardesty then dropped another verbal bomb in the hearing. He explained how “administrative fee” revenue not retained by the courts is directed to public education.
Assembly Member Chris Edwards (R-Sunrise Manor) asked Justice Hardesty for a solution. Hardesty replied with an intriguing example.
“Utah funds its judiciary, all of it, through the general fund.”
Assembly Member Heidi Swank (D-Las Vegas), Chair of Assembly Ways and Means Subcommittee on General Government, provided a somber reality check on this. “If it comes down to the general fund, we need more money in the general fund.”
Ironically enough, one #NVLeg committee was examining this systemic problem while another heard a bill that could exacerbate it. At Assembly Judiciary, legislators were hearing AB 15. This bill from Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt’s (R) office includes fines for anyone associated with “insurance fraud”. Representatives from the Attorney General’s Office claimed AB 15 targets those who stage car accidents. However, various Assembly Members asked whether this could entrap undocumented immigrants, as well as drivers who don’t have the right type of insurance for their cars.
We’ve yet to see if any legislators propose a bill to correct the systemic injustice noted by Ford and Hardesty.