Reno City Council members last week postponed the appointment of a judge to fill the vacancy left by Tammy Riggs in Reno Municipal Court’s Department Four.
The decision hasn’t sat well with some in the community. They say the decision seems “shady” and violates the city’s charter, which requires the seat to be filled within 30 days. Judge Riggs resigned Oct. 1, 2020.
Instead of filling the seat by Oct. 31, within the 30-day window mandated by city rules, council members decided to hold off on the appointment until January 2021. A variety of reasons were cited to postpone the decision. Among them were different interpretations of the city’s charter, the city’s current emergency declaration due to COVID-19, a hiring freeze and fiscal concerns and the proximity of Election Day, which Councilmember Devon Reese said could have an impact on who gets to help choose a replacement judge.
Councilmembers Jenny Brekhus and Reese zeroed in on specifics of the city’s charter to make their arguments on the timing of the appointment. Reese, who led off with a reminder that he’s the only lawyer on the council, cited section 4.010 of the city’s charter in his defense of the postponement.
“The charter, section 4.010, indicates that we must as a city have one municipal court department, meaning we have one that is created by our charter,” Reese said. “The other three have all been created by resolution. I take that to mean that we can reduce that so long as we don’t go below one.”
He added that so long as the judge’s seat remains vacant the council has no obligation to fill it, so long as at least one department and judge remain active.
Brekhus keyed in on a separate section of the city’s charter, section 1.070, which states, “Except as otherwise provided in this section, a vacancy in the City Council or in the office of City Attorney or Municipal Judge must be filled by a majority vote of the members of the City Council within 30 days after the occurrence of the vacancy.”
She also argued that filling Rigg’s seat with a pro tem judge, who does not have the same authority in cases as a permanent judge, could open up a number of legal arguments from defendants.
Council member Neoma Jardon questioned whether the 30-day window applied to a requirement to start the process or actually fill the vacancy, and if there was concern over following the charter, who was bringing up that concern.
Deputy City Attorney Mark Dunagan affirmed the charter’s language and the 30-day window to fill the seat.
“It says they ‘must be filled by a majority vote of the members of the City Council within 30 days after the occurrence of the vacancy,’ so I read ‘filled’ as a sworn-in judge. That was my reading of the provision,” he said.
Process put on hold
During the meeting Brekhus also grilled Reno Municipal Court Administrator Steve Tuttle for actions she said overstepped the court’s duties. Upon announcement of Rigg’s resignation, Tuttle sent an email to councilmembers outlining a process to fill the vacancy. Brekhus said it was the council’s role to decide upon and initiate the process for filling the seat, not the court’s.
“This is a council responsibility, and no one should be telling the council how they should make an appointment,” she argued. “They should be asking the council how they’d like to do an appointment.” Brekhus said she’d sent that message in an email to Tuttle earlier this month, but said she hadn’t heard back.
In response, Tuttle said he’d realized his overstep and forwarded the emails to Dunagan. From there, communication stopped.
Meanwhile, the application process to fill the seat was opened at the request of the City Attorney’s office and continued through Oct. 7, garnering 14 responses. Of those, one was disqualified due to residency reasons and two others voluntarily withdrew their applications.
Mayor Hillary Schieve said the city would not open a second application period prior to the January appointment, indicating that those 11 candidates would be the only ones considered for the position, should they still be interested in the seat come January.
Heavy caseload doesn’t sway decision
Tuttle said the Reno Municipal Court was one of the busiest courts in the state. Citing data from 2019, he said the court adjudicated 9,174 cases, or about 2,294 cases per judge, in addition to more than 11,000 traffic cases. He compared the Municipal Court’s caseload to Reno Justice Court, which has six judges who each handled 989 cases in 2019.
He also pointed out that each judge in the Municipal Court also manages a specialty court, adding to the amount of work they must perform.
While the city’s emergency declaration was cited as a reason to postpone the decision, Tuttle said the pandemic hasn’t slowed the number of cases coming through the court.
“At the start of the pandemic, yes, traffic [cases] fell off a bit because law enforcement weren’t out there writing citations,” he said. “But criminal activity, unfortunately, remained pretty steady. And as we saw, domestic violence cases kind of went up.”
He said 75% of the court’s workload has continued online. Bench trials were set aside because defendants have a right to face their accusers, but have resumed in person in the past month with about 30 trials per day, or about 100 trials a week.
“Is this position needed? The quick answer is, yes, it’s needed,” Tuttle said of filling the vacancy.
He added that redistributing judicial responsibilities among the three permanent judges and bringing in a pro tem judge to handle some cases, as council members had discussed, was a strategy the court had also considered. Tuttle said a discussion between the court’s human resources department and the city attorney’s office shot down that strategy. The charter, they said, was clear.
Watch the discussion online, which begins at hour 3:47 of the meeting:
Kristen Hackbarth is a freelance editor and communications professional with more than 20 years’ experience working in marketing, public relations and communications in northern Nevada. Kristen graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a degree in photography and minor in journalism and has a Master of Science in Management and Leadership. She also serves as director of communications for Nevada Cancer Coalition, a statewide nonprofit. Though she now lives in Atlanta, she is a Nevadan for life and uses her three-hour time advantage to get a jump on the morning’s news.