High court splits over jury trial rights in small claims court

The Nevada Supreme Court split 4-3 Thursday over whether parties in small claims court have the right to demand a jury trial.

The majority agreed with Justice Jim Hardesty's opinion that small claims courts were not designed to conduct jury trials. Hardesty wrote that although the Nevada Constitution guarantees a right to jury trial in all courts, small claims courts weren't created until 1923 and the law doing so says nothing about jury trials.

"Small claims trials are intended to be informal with the sole object of dispensing fair and speedy justice between the parties," he wrote.

Hardesty pointed out California has reached the same conclusion.

"Historically, there is a distinct difference between justice court and small claims court and this difference is found in the sole reason for small claims courts' existence: To provide an avenue for speedy and effective remedies in civil actions involving minimal sums," the opinion states.

Hardesty was joined by justices Mark Gibbons and Ron Parraguirre as well as Chief Justice Nancy Becker in concluding there is no constitutional right to a jury trial in small claims court.

Justices Bob Rose, Michael Douglas and Bill Maupin disagreed, arguing the Nevada Constitution's guarantee is not qualified but absolute. They pointed out that a plaintiff in justice court can ask for a jury trial but a defendant sued in small claims court for the same type of claim has no right to demand a jury.

"This results in treating a plaintiff and a defendant unequally, providing one with the election to have a jury trial and the other without," states the dissent written by Justice Rose.

He argues that creates a "blatant violation" of the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law.

n Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at gdornan@nevadaappeal.com or 687-8750.


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