My recent trip to the USA, between August and September 2017, springs to mind – the International Visitor Leadership Programme sponsored by the US Department of State, in which I, with fourteen other participants from across Africa, studied the US Judicial System. We were taken through the underlying principles of the US judicial and legal systems and their basis in the Constitution and the rule of law. The programme deepened our understanding of the federal and state judicial systems for both criminal and civil matters under the US model of federalism. We had a feel of the workings of an independent judiciary, and, through the observation of trials, we were educated on the essentials of a fair, transparent and accessible judicial system. The programme also exposed us to relationships between enforcement agencies, prosecutors, and courts.
The programme kicked off in Washington DC on 12th August 2017. Eight days later, we travelled to Reno, in the western district of Nevada. Togged in between the states of Oregon, Idaho, California, Arizona and Utah, Nevada is much more than the state hosting the world’s biggest gambling city –Las Vegas. The 36th state of America, said to be the fourth largest producer of gold in the world, has many more peculiarities and stand-alone marvels. Though largely a desert state, many of the state’s residents boast about Hoover Dam, the Great Basin and the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, and its 23 state parks.
Nevada’s liberality is not only expressed in the legalization of gambling. Besides Clark County – that houses Las Vegas, Washoe County – the home of Reno, and Carson County – an independent community next-door to Reno, prostitution is legal in Nevada. I swear we did not go beyond Reno where prostitution is illegal. But we visited the gambling casinos in downtown Reno.
Flying on the American airline from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in the early morning of Sunday, 20th August 2017, we arrived at Reno/Tahoe International Airport via Chicago O’Hare International Airport around 1 p.m. We were driven to the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Reno. Later that evening, we were hosted to a dinner by Steve and Nancy Cooper, one of the most wonderful families I have ever met in my life. The food was prepared by an energetic, affectionate 93-year-old lady. That dinner – with more of such experiences – is a topic for another day.
The first scheduled Monday, 21st August meeting was supplanted by the rituals surrounding the solar eclipse. Americans sure have a knack for building fanfares around events. 8-9:45 a.m. was scheduled for the watching of the eclipse with special sunglasses. However, not seeing the point in celebrating a solar eclipse, I stayed indoors until about 10 a.m. when it was time to leave the hotel for the visit to the Washoe County Alternative Incarceration Unit.
Counties in the United States are like Local Government Areas in Nigeria. They are called parishes in the State of Louisiana and boroughs in the State of Alaska. Counties have specified governmental authority. The Sheriff’s Office is the law enforcement agency of a county that is headed by a Sheriff. The Sheriffs are elected peace-keeping, law enforcement officials of counties or independent cities. Such elected Sheriffs are accountable only to the US constitution, statutes and the citizens of their counties. The other categories of law enforcement officers working in the Sheriff’s Office bear various titles; including deputies, sheriff’s police or sheriff’s officers.
Stating the general duties of Sheriffs, Wikipedia declares:
Most sheriff’s offices have law enforcement duty and roles. Although the authority of the sheriff varies from state to state and county to county, a sheriff or their deputies (in all states except Delaware, where the sheriff’s defined role is going through arbitration) has the power to make arrests and serve before a magistrate or judge, serve warrants for arrest or order for arrest, and give a ticket/citation. Some states extend this authority to adjacent counties or to the entire state.
Many sheriff’s offices also perform other functions such as traffic control, animal enforcement, accident investigations, homicide investigation, narcotics investigation, transportation of prisoners, school resource officers, and courthouse security. Larger departments may perform other criminal investigations or engage in other specialized law enforcement activities. Some larger sheriff’s departments may have aviation (including fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters), motorcycle unit, K9 units, mounted details, or water patrols at their disposal.
Many sheriff’s departments enlist the aid of local neighborhoods, using a community policing strategy, in working to prevent crime. The National Neighborhood Watch Program, sponsored by the National Sheriffs’ Association, allows civilians and law enforcement officers to cooperate in keeping communities safe.
The meeting with the deputies of the patrol division of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office was an eye-opener to community policing in America. The Washoe County Sheriff’s Office provides law enforcement services to the unincorporated area of Washoe County. The deputies put us through the programmes and services of the unit, showing how their techniques are impacting on the number of offenders in public detention areas in the county. One important takeaway for me was the talk on the Sheriff’s office-community relations system, whereby the office partners with locals and families to fight crime. Another takeaway was the need for any law enforcement agency or unit to not only know its terrain but also the people it is overseeing. The Sheriff’s Office makes it a duty to know and has records of all residents within the county. Being elected officials, the Sheriffs know that they hold office subject to keeping the peace and preventing crime in the county.
In America, dispute resolution is not the job of courts alone. Sanctioning all disputes and cases to be resolved by courts will overburden the courts and slow down the dispensation of justice. The Washoe County, therefore, enlists the services of mediation centres – like the Neighborhood Mediation Center, Inc, a Nevada non-profit corporation – to mediate on small claims cases. The session with the Center’s Monica Kales makes a case for the use of ADR for the resolution of claims bothering on small monetary claims, landlord/tenant issues, probate matters and partnership dissolution.
Alternative Dispute Resolution, ADR, is part of Nigeria’s legal system. I am proud of the part I played in its introduction to the legal system. I, however, have my regrets that its potentials are less explored in Nigeria. There are many cases that are still being litigated that could have been better and faster handled through ADR. I thus call on the Bench and the Bar to revisit the various court rules with a view to expanding the frontiers of ADR in our legal system.
The icing on the cake for the day was a panel discussion at the Federal Court House in Reno. The panel, headed by Judge Miranda Du, had Assistant US Attorney Sue Fahami, Federal Public Defender Sylvia Irvin, and Pre-trial Officer Misty Sanchez as members. The panel discussed the federal courts and their jurisdiction.
The Federal court system of the United States comprises the US Supreme Court, the US Court of Appeals and US District Courts. The Supreme Court is the apex or final appellate court. It is, therefore, a court of last resort. There is no other court ahead of it. It has nine justices who give binding interpretations to the constitution of the United States of America. The Supreme Court does not have to hear all cases or appeals filed in the court. The Justices of the court have the absolute discretion to choose the cases they will hear or review. The Court of Appeals that is next to the Supreme Court is also an appellate court. It receives appeals from the District Courts and its appeals go to the Supreme Court. It is divided into circuits. There are 13 Courts of Appeal divided into circuits with each circuit consisting of several states. The decisions of Circuit Courts of Appeal are only binding on their respective circuits. The District Courts are the trial Federal Courts, and are stationed in the states to hear and determine cases bothering on federal laws. They hear both civil and criminal cases.
There is no specified qualification for judges and justices of the US Federal courts, including the Supreme Court. Technically, a non-lawyer can be appointed to the US Supreme Court and the other Federal Courts.
The meeting with Chief Judge Patrick Flanagan of the Washoe County Courthouse on Tuesday, 22nd August 2017 left indelible impressions on many of us. Before joining the Bench in 2006, Chief Judge Flanagan was the President of the State Bar of Nevada. He had a flourishing practice, but his love for justice and humanity lured him to the Bench where he had consistently received commendable ratings. Listening to him that day was like listening to a childhood friend reliving old school and street tales. He left no one in doubt that he loved his job and was concerned about the public’s perception of his job. The picture that I still have of him as he sat on his chair that day was that of a quintessential humanist who strongly believed that the law is a tool of justice. Unfortunately, news just flittered in that he has passed on. I do not have words with which to eulogize, but I am certain that he is somewhere near God, reaping the benefits of his good deeds on earth.
Nevada’s judiciary encompasses the Nevada Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, District Courts, Justice Courts, and Municipal Courts, and their justices, judges, and staff. Like other states in the US, Nevada’s judiciary is completely independent of the Federal Judiciary.
The Supreme Court is composed of a Chief Justice and six Associate Justices. The Nevada Supreme Court hears appeals from the Court of Appeal.
A Court of Appeal was established for the State of Nevada in 2014. The Court of Appeal consists of three Judges. The Nevada Supreme Court assigns the types of district court decisions to be heard by the Court of Appeal and also determines when a Court of Appeal’s decision may be reviewed by the Nevada Supreme Court.
The District Courts have original jurisdiction over all matters excluded from the jurisdiction of the justice and municipal courts, and appellate jurisdiction in cases arising from those courts. Nevada’s District Courts also have jurisdiction over juvenile justice. Family Courts in Washoe County are also a division of the District Courts.
As the name implies, Special Courts are specialized courts attending to specific societal problems. Nevada has Adult Drug Courts, including diversion and child support; Family Drug Courts, Mental Health Courts; Juvenile Drug Courts; Driving Under the Influence (DUI) Courts; hybrid DUI/Drug Courts; Prostitution Prevention Courts; Veterans Treatment Court; and Habitual Offender Courts.
Nevada also has Community Courts that are, according to Research Division, Nevada Legislative Counsel Bureau POLICY AND PROGRAM REPORT:
similar to specialty courts since they allow local governments to impose alternative sentences on persons charged with misdemeanours… In 2013, the Legislature authorized each county to establish a community court pilot project for misdemeanour offenders, excluding persons charged with domestic violence or driving under the influence.
There are many communities of indigenous tribes in the United States of America that are independent of the Federal, State and County structures of the American Federation. Those communities of native Indian or tribal nations are recognized as “domestic dependent nations.” They exercise some limited sovereignty that enables them to govern themselves as sovereign states within the borders of the United States. Like the American States, they are governed by their respective constitutions and laws. Like the states and counties of the United States, the domestic dependent nations cannot do or exercise any of the functions limited by the Constitution of the United States of America to the Federal Government. Like the states, the domestic dependent nations have their own courts of record.
Nigeria can learn a lot from the US National Tribal Judicial Center at the National Judicial College for the improvement of the Customary Court System. Our meeting with the team of Christine Folsom, Hoyte and Morris after our meeting with Judge Patrick Flanagan emphasized the importance Americans attach to every aspect of their judicial system. The efforts America makes to ensure that every aspect of the judicial system catches up with modern principles of justice and techniques of justice delivery tell why their system is succeeding and ours is lagging behind. Tribal customs and principles of justice regulate the lives of the rural areas of Nigeria. It is, therefore, useful for the Government to pay attention to that area of justice delivery with a view to integrating it into the mainstream legal system.
Nevada’s Justice Courts are small claims courts that handle civil matters not exceeding $15,000 in damages, evictions, misdemeanours, traffic cases, small claims and other matters. Justice Courts also determine whether probable cause exists for felony and gross misdemeanour cases to be bound over to the District Court.
Municipal Courts are also courts of limited jurisdiction. They handle violations of city ordinances, proceedings to abate a nuisance within a city, actions for collection of city taxes or assessments up to$2,500, and similar matters.
Unlike Nigeria where both the federal and state judges are appointed, in Nevada voters elect the State’s justices and judges, who are nonpartisan. Supreme Court justices, district court judges, and justices of the peace serve six-year terms, except that some first-term district court judges serve four-year terms. The city charter or a city ordinance fixes the term of office of a municipal judge
We were also conducted on a tour of the National Judicial College by Danielle Harris and Sarah Dahl. Founded in 1963, the college pioneers judicial education in the US.
May I mention that there is so much for Nigeria to learn from the National Judicial College in Reno. The college provides practical education for members of the Bench. The college, which is open to judges across the globe, teaches courses that emphasize core judicial skills, ethics, decision-making and the relationship and responsibility of courts to communities. The college also provides good courses for the management of courts. The college is open to partnership with countries and does offer online courses.