In a 5-1 ruling, the Nevada Supreme Court held Friday it's unconstitutional for the Las Vegas Township Justice Court to deny jury trials in civil cases involving $5,000 or less.
The split decision overturned lower court rulings in two cases that upheld the Justice Court policy adopted in 1999 as a way to "preserve judicial resources."
The Nevada Constitution guarantees a trial by jury in civil cases "even when small amounts are in controversy," the majority opinion states. That might not be the case for small claims cases - but justices said the two cases they reviewed weren't filed as small claims actions.
Justice Mark Gibbons dissented, saying civil cases involving minor claims don't have a right to a jury trial under either the U.S. Constitution or the Nevada Constitution.
Gibbons noted the state's high court in 1970 relied on policy considerations - such as the money and time saved by nonjury trials - to limit jury trials in certain criminal cases.
"Jury trials in small civil matters should be limited, based on these same policy considerations," Gibbons said. "Civil litigants in minor cases must be able to present their arguments in a forum which does not require formal knowledge of procedures such as selecting jurors and presenting jury instructions."
The Nevada Constitution guarantees the right to a jury trial "forever." The majority opinion modified that to say Nevada's jury trial right is defined by English common law as it existed when the Nevada Constitution was adopted in 1864 - but that didn't alter the right to jury trials in small civil actions.
The ruling favors Michael Mullins and Aftercare of Nevada Inc., sued for damages by Eric Lehy in 2001 following an automobile accident; and William Roper, sued in 2000 by Solidad Ramirez and Imelda Izquierdo following a separate auto accident.